Do biopics romanticise the lives of real people?

Over the last few years biopics have dominated the cinema scene, with high budgets and eager audiences, the genre has seen continued box office success. Biopics of musicians have seen a particular rise in popularity, spurred by the success of Bohemian Rhapsody about the eccentric Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, which became the highest-grossing biographical film of all time.

By focusing on a real-life subject, the film has a guaranteed audience and established plotline. Alongside this, a musical biopic has the marketability of a successful soundtrack. However, despite their commercial success biopics have been criticised for being motivated by profit and lacking substance. Quentin Tarantino has stated that biopics were ‘just big excuses for actors to win Oscars’ in response to their increasing prevalence. Even beyond a directorial perspective, the genre is often criticised by the devoted fans who have followed the lives and careers of these celebrities. When condensing the lives of such well-known figures, there is a tendency to underplay or overemphasise certain elements to produce the most engaging storyline.

The allure of stars like Freddie Mercury and John Lennon is not always enough to guarantee a captivating sequence of events, therefore drama often needs to be cultivated for the sake of viewership. Nowhere Boy, a biopic detailing the teenage years of John Lennon, suggests a complicated and uncomfortably intimate relationship between Lennon and his mother Julia. Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticised for its flexible chronology and convoluted depictions of Mercury’s relationship with Jim Hutton, Paul Prenter and Mary Austin.

Video Credit: IFC Films

A recent source of controversy is the upcoming film Stardust, which details the life of David Bowie. The film was not approved by Bowie’s estate and does not contain any of his music, which resulted in many fans not supporting the film’s production. Although David Bowie is a celebrity, his life is not guaranteed personal property, which raises questions surrounding the integrity of these films. In comparison, Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor served as consultants on Bohemian Rhapsody and for Rocketman Elton John and his husband David Furnish were producers. It could be argued that such direct involvement encourages a level of self-indulgence or bias in the way events are depicted, but it ensures that any significant changes were approved. 

Consultation seems necessary when dealing with recent celebrities, however, when exploring the lives of historical figures, it becomes more complicated. The audience is less likely to recognise historical inconsistencies, meaning the film could perpetuate false ideas or assumptions. With historical biopics, there is a desire to romanticise a forgotten era of history and humanize previously elusive figures. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette combines these factors, by merging modern features with a historical landscape. The lavish colours and set design deviates from historical accuracy. Depictions of historical figures such as Marie Antoinette can be more flexible to a higher extent than modern musicians due to the lack of personal claim over their stories. However, the people in biopics can easily become caricatures, which should be considered when evaluating their role and actions within these films

Ultimately, biopics should not be constrained to follow a specific timeline unless claiming to be historically accurate. Most biopics use a level of creative licencing to meet time constraints, without detriment to the person or the story that is being conveyed. However, when using unsubstantiated or fabricated events, it is the duty of the filmmaker to ensure a divide between the authentic and genuine.