The recipe for biopic movies is simple: After identifying a subject, mix fact with fiction and serve the final product to an audience.
Biopics, short for biographical pictures, are cinematic dramatizations of real individuals’ lives, Andy Rose, a senior lecturer in the film studies program and a veteran screenwriter, said. These films attempt to capitalize on the intrigue surrounding public figures or landmark events, he said.
Biopics released over the past year — including “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Blonde” and “Elvis” — align with a significant influx of celebrity idealization, Rose said. Due to the cultural value of social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok, people feel increasingly entitled to others’ personal information, he said.
“Everybody wants to learn everything about anybody who’s famous,” Rose said.
Inaccuracy is a notable problem plaguing the biopic genre, Rose said. Tasked with creating a highlight reel of a human being’s authentic experiences, filmmakers can feel pressured to embellish the truth, he said.
“Real life for most people, even celebrities, is kind of dull and boring,” Rose said. “You’ve got to, you know, keep the story moving for 90 minutes, even if in real life there may have been weeks where nothing was happening.”
Third-year in film studies and a 2022-23 film student ambassador, David Cassady, who serves as a link between prospective and current film students, said. Trimming down a nuanced life story into a feature-length flick is challenging. Unfortunately, minimization frequently occurs in artistic and educational mediums, he said.
“I think about Native Americans,” Cassady said. “In the American school system, we have simplified their struggles to like two sentences in a history book.”
Focusing on a milestone moment instead of recreating a person’s entire lifespan is one strategy biopic writers employ to avoid oversimplification, Cassady said. He said the 2018 film “Bohemian Rhapsody” explores rock star Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek’s) legendary career, but uses the historic 1985 Live Aid concert as a climax and focal point.
“A lot of famous individuals have iconic moments in their lifetime that can be used to make a great movie,” Cassady said.
“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” released in September 2022 and starring Daniel Radcliffe, is another biopic that experiments with storytelling techniques, Rose said. The script functions as a parody to poke fun at its muse and biopics at large. A majority of the situations depicted are fabricated for comedic purposes, he said.
“It was a sort of fictitious, satirical story about this bizarre character, but I thought that was a good angle to take because it was a weird movie based on a weird character,” Rose said.
Still, many moviegoers seek out biopics because they want to be well-versed in pop culture, Isabel Tettau, a fourth-year in moving-image production and a 2022-23 film student ambassador, said. Viewers need to approach biopics with a certain degree of nihilism, seeing as they can be intensely commercialized, she said.
“That’s why I love fiction pieces, because it’s you finding your truth in a fiction film,” Tettau said. “I still think you can do that with a biopic, but you just have to have a little bit more awareness.”
Tettau said she is most intrigued by biopics that highlight lesser-known figures.
“I really like films like ‘Selma’ or ‘Hidden Figures,’” Tettau said. “They give me a point of context to go and do more research.”
Though biopics remain alluring and profitable in the present, Rose said the general public’s appetite for them might wane with time.
“I think we could get to the point where we’re doing biopics about people that nobody even cares about anymore,” Rose said. “Any time there’s anything successful, Hollywood copies it until it becomes unsuccessful again.”