1 jul 2024

Why are good biopics so rare?

From Johnny Hallyday to Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, hardly a week goes by without the announcement of a brand new biopic release. Yet films that recount the lives and careers of deceased (or still alive) stars rarely live up to the aura of their notorious protagonists. Here’s why. Decryption.

Translation by Emma Naroumbo Armaing.

Anamaria Vartolomei in Maria (2024).
Anamaria Vartolomei in Maria (2024).

This year, several biopics have been or will be released about the lives of Bob Marley, Priscilla Presley, Maria Schneider, Maurice Ravel, Amy Winehouse and Charles Aznavour (starring Tahar Rahim). In addition to those feature films, numerous other projects are in the making about celebrities, such as Johnny Hallyday – two films are in preparation, one starring Raphaël Quenard and another one starring Matthias Schoenaert – Bob Dylan with Timothée Chalamet, Maria Callas with Angelina Jolie, the Bee Gees, Lee Miller, the Beatles, Susan Sontag, Scorpions, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Nat King Cole, Julio Iglesias, Pharrell Williams and Frank Sinatra.

Hardly a week goes by without the release of a new biopic being announced. Yet films that recount the lives and careers of stars who passed away or are still alive today rarely live up to their characters.

Why is there such a gap between the enthusiasm felt by filmmakers and audiences regarding the genre, and the quality of the biopics?

Marisa Abela in Back to Black (2024) © Dean Rogers / STUDIOCANAL SAS.
Marisa Abela in Back to Black (2024) © Dean Rogers / STUDIOCANAL SAS.

Bob Marley: One Love, Back to Black… Biopics approved by relatives of the stars

One possible explanation is the involvement of a relative in a biopic that sanctifies a celebrity. Indeed, when someone close to the star is involved, one can be sure that many of the rough edges will be ironed out, especially regarding drug addictions.

And some parts of the story will be rewritten in a positive light. For instance, the terrible biopic Bob Marley: One Love has been approved by Bob Marley’s mother Rita and sister Cedella. While the eldest son of Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, co-produced the film about the reggae icon.

As for Back to Black, the failed biopic about Amy Winehouse, it glamorizes the relationship between the star and her father, Mitch Winehouse, a man far more toxic and self-interested than the work suggests, and who by the way was delighted with the film’s cast. Some even believe that he played a major role in the singer’s descent into hell.

Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

Bohemian Rhapsody or the Hollywood vision of the life of Freddie Mercury

Biopics often have one flaw in common – they offer a simplified, sanitized Hollywood vision of the life of a star. An illustration of that is Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), starring Rami Malek, which very poorly addresses the icon’s homosexuality, and waters down Freddie Mercury’s bacchanalia and dark side.

Yet, when the rights holders don’t approve the film projects, the music of the singers cannot be used, which hinders the authenticity of a biopic.

However, there are a few exceptions. When the genuine vision of a screenwriter writes the story of a myth, then we’re dealing with a success story. Examples include Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2024), about Priscilla and Elvis Presley, and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), about the tormented life of Ian Curtis, leader of the cult band Joy Division.

Schindler’s List and Elephant Man are among the best biopics of all time

Biopics are also quite convincing when we know little to nothing about the existence and life of the person celebrated (or criticized) in the film.

Schindler’s List (1994) by Steven Spielberg starring Liam Neeson, Ed Wood (1994) by Tim Burton, Green Book (2019) by Peter Farrelly starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, Elephant Man (1981) by David Lynch starring Anthony Hopkins, Raging Bull (1981) by Martin Scorsese starring Robert De Niro, Goodfellas (1990), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (2014) with Matthew McConaughey, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) and Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game (2014) with Benedict Cumberbatchis are all biographical features. As well as Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster Oppenheimer (2023).

These biopics often have the merit of brilliantly shining a light on figures barely known by the audience. For when a biopic tackles the story of an icon, like Marilyn Monroe for instance, it remains difficult for the actors to match the aura of the figure they embody, even with all the make-up and prosthetics in the world.

The biopic about Johnny Hallyday directed by Cédric Jimenez and starring Raphaël Quenard is scheduled for December 2027.