Over the past few years, we’ve seen the same paradigm of stories and archetypes of heroes hitting the big screen. With the same storylines and sometimes even the same predictable dialogue, Hollywood studio films all feel derivative right now. One of the few types of films we keep seeing, again and again, is the biopic. With Elvis, Blonde, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, The Fabelmans, She Said and Till, amongst others, all coming out in 2022, and many more others still in production, such as the Madonna, as well as Amy Winehouse features — biographical films seem to be all the rave in Hollywood.
Biopic, short for biographical motion picture, is a dramatised retelling of the story of a real person’s life, but not necessarily entirely non-fiction.
As opposed to documentaries, biopics offer a more personal, intimate view into the lives of others. Biopics have more creative liberty, giving the screenwriters the ability to shape the story to their liking, whether it’s an added love interest or a whole new character arc. Biopics can veer far from reality and still be considered a biographical film even if only a small part of the story is grounded in the truth.
Biographical films have always had a strong presence in Hollywood. Some of the greatest, well-known films are based on real people, with classics such as Goodfellas and Schindler’s List. The genre seems to have notably regained popularity in the past recent years.
Many of these films have received great success, particularly at the Academy Awards. Over the past few years, many biopics have been well-praised at the Oscars, with, most recently, Green Book taking home Best Picture (2019), Will Smith Best Actor for King Richard (2022), Jessica Chastain Best Actress (2022), and the phrase ‘oscarbait’ being used to describe the Oscars can’t seem to get enough of these films.
While these films humanise big public figures, showing them struggle with similar difficulties many of us face, they do risk exploiting the stories of others.
There’s a thin line between presenting the life of public figures behind the fame and romanticising their struggle – giving us a voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of our favourite celebrities for us to cruelly inspect and dissect – a parasocial device, if you will.
One of the most recent biographies to gain traction, Blonde, based on Marilyn Monroe, has received backlash for its exploitation of her trauma, depicting her as a victim of sexual abuse and mental illness, without displaying her agency within that process. Monroe’s personal life has been abused by the press both during her life and after her death, and Blonde seemed to replicate this pattern by romanticising her trauma and presenting her as only a victim of her abuse.
Although these films cannot cover all aspects of a person’s life, the parts that are presented, and more importantly, the parts that are left out, can drastically alter the way we perceive the people the story is based on.
At the end of the day, these films are still stories, meaning writers construct their own versions of these people’s lives to fit whatever narrative they wish to tell. This isn’t necessarily bad, however, it can be dangerous to only tell stories of suffering and pain without showing the force and power of the people with these struggles.
While these films do provide compelling and entertaining stories, they seem to have lost the sight of what film should be.
The popularity of biopics has only led to the increased prevalence of these films, and by consequence, fewer original films are being produced at a particular scale and recognised to the same degree.
With Elvis and Bohemian Rhapsody receiving critical acclaim, it comes as no surprise that Whitney Houston is the next artist whose story is being put on display.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody, titled after Houston’s hit song by the same name, is yet another biographical film that has hit the big screen. It comes as no further surprise that the film has already received criticism for glossing over her struggle with substance abuse. The film, released this month, has also been criticised for its cliched story structure. Film critic, David Ehrlich writes for IndieWire, that the film “doesn’t express Houston’s struggle to be everything to everyone so much as it does this movie’s desperation to be anything to anyone.”
In an attempt to win the appeal of viewers and the Academy alike, many films try too hard to be likeable. Hollywood seems averse to risk, making films they know will receive commercial success. As a result, we get the same hackneyed, predictable films we’ve seen a million times before. But at what point did we stop creating stories for what they really are, stories that are a product of creative expression and experimentation? When did we stop creating films for ourselves, and not lust over fame and success?