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The Underhand Motives of Biopics

Should we treat these films as fact?

Following the success of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), there seems to have been a spike in films centred on the popstars of bygone eras. The Beatles are the next major musicians to grace the silver screen, with Sam Mendes directing four biopics, each centring on one band member. My first thought upon hearing this announcement was: “Will John Lennon be depicted as domestically abusive?”. It is common knowledge that Lennon was violent; he himself identified as a “hitter” in a Playboy interview. Biopics tend to conceal their lead’s misdemeanours, yet time can only tell whether Mendes’ version will confront this side of him. If the biopic isn’t an attempt to objectively depict a person’s life, replete with both their misdeeds as well as their successes, then what is it attempting?

It seems to be an effort to publically reframe the figure. In Elvis (2022), the relationship between Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley is spotlighted. Throughout the film, the Colonel masterminds each move in Presley’s career. In contrast to this Machiavellian character, Elvis is posited as a victim of his plots. The viewer becomes privy to the unglamorous side of fame, and how a celebrity is impeded by the greed of those around them. Between meetings behind closed doors and mental breakdowns, we can witness the confidential and the vulnerable in a way that makes us sympathise with, and reconfigure our understanding of, Elvis. Combined with the knowledge of his untimely death, Elvis here becomes almost a tragic hero. We can thus understand the musician biopic as a cultivation of compassion, making us root for and feel close to the celebrity in a way we otherwise couldn’t.

Yet, some choice is made in what to include in a biopic. While Elvis doesn’t examine his marriage, Priscilla (2023) foregrounds his partner’s perspective of it. A new Elvis is presented to us: he is childish, controlling, and violent. In absenting Elvis’ role as a husband in Elvis, it seems that a deliberate decision has been made to make him infallible. By eulogising these figures and obscuring their unsavoury attributes, it becomes clear that a biopic is motivated. We are only supposed to leave the cinema bigger fans than we already are. 

With these motives in mind, it becomes interesting to think about the morality of making biopics for celebrities posthumously. In trying to give insight into a person, is it possible we might see something they didn’t want the public to know? In I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022), Whitney Houston’s queer relationship with Robyn Crawford is centralised. The singer was never openly gay: the facts of this relationship are only known thanks to Crawford’s memoir. In guessing at Houston’s feelings towards her orientation, the film is confounded by its unethical exploitation of her undisclosed sexuality for narrative beats. I’m not suggesting that the filmmakers should have ignored her queerness. Yet, when sensitive questions of identity cannot be answered by a living person, it seems disrespectful to their memory to write our own responses.

This problem perhaps can only be reconciled in films centred on living stars. When creative teams work with the figure, such as with Elton John for Rocketman (2019), the content becomes less troubling. Still, it doesn’t redress the issue of subjective truth. If I were to make a biopic about my own life, I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t make myself look better! Blindly trusting biopics, even with the figure’s involvement, allows for the rewriting of history. With less morally-upstanding persons, the biopic can be a revisionist tool in order to erase their transgressions and render their reputation irreproachable.

These films are creating a specific image. It’s not a history lesson, but a thinly veiled construction. Underneath all the glitz and glamour, it is about renewing interest in order to make a profit out of celebrities who no longer make as much money themselves, due to their retirement, downtick in interest, or death. Narrativising the life of an individual for financial gain, especially in regards to the deceased, seems a particularly twisted turn for celebrity culture, and perhaps one that we shouldn’t tolerate. If we must keep swarming to the cinemas to see these lives play out, we should, at the very least, be more critical to what is being presented.

Illustration by Ruby Pitman

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