From Queens to Rock Stars

What distinguishes a well-made biopic?

Sep. 8 marked the end of an incredibly significant reign — the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, the number of streams on “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths has risen, and so have reposts and memes about the Queen’s death. But arguably the greatest pop culture wave that has swept through since her death is the drastic rise in viewership of the television series “The Crown,” despite a new season being far from release.

As of Sep. 11, “The Crown” has advanced in Netflix’s top charts in many regions. “The Crown” is just one of many biopics that audiences have enjoyed in recent years.

A biopic is a movie or TV series that dramatizes the life of a real person. Recent examples include “Elvis,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “House of Gucci,” “Spencer,” “Tick…Tick…Boom!” and countless others that have been released in just the past decade.

When audiences see a celebrity they recognize and love, they are bound to form a connection with the film before it even starts. On top of that, biopics have recently afforded opportunities for talented actors to become more recognized in the public eye, and are also able to shed light on misunderstood or underrepresented figures. However, if done poorly, the representation of people and situations in biopics can be wildly misleading or hurtful. Overall, these positives and negatives make creating a well-done biopic an intricate and difficult feat.

In recent years, the biopic genre has given actors a chance to play stellar lead roles that allow them to showcase a wide range of their talent through their complex characters.

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic on Freddie Mercury, proved to be an instant success when it became the highest-grossing biopic film of all time. This fame greatly helped propel the stardom of the lead actor, Rami Malek, who won the Academy and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, among many other accolades.

Even more recently, Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant “Elvis” had a similar effect on lead actor Austin Butler. Previously mainly known as an actor on Disney Channel, Butler’s popularity skyrocketed once “Elvis” was released, transforming him into a mainstream Hollywood star after the biopic gave him the opportunity to wield his immense talent.

“Elvis” was partly such a success because of how beloved its subject, Elvis Presley, is. Most often the connection an average person will have with a celebrity is a parasocial relationship — a one-sided admiration from afar. But in recent years, the media, and by extension, biopics, have been able to shed light on a completely different side of celebrities, humanizing them and making them more relatable to the masses. For instance, social media has seen the absolute explosion of the story of Britney Spears — a celebrity who had once been widely considered a drama queen who constantly had disturbing meltdowns. But after sharing her side of the story through social media, people all over the world began posting #FreeBritney in support of Spears’ freedom from her father’s conservatorship. Just with the power of the media, Spears was able to change her whole narrative.

Biopics, which are an aspect of the media, hold immense power to build sympathy in viewers. They can reframe the narrative of misunderstood individuals, giving them a second chance in the eyes of the public.

“I, Tonya” is a notable biopic that has succeeded at achieving this. The movie follows the infamous figure-skating career of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the American Olympic figure skater who was engulfed in scandal after allegedly being involved in the assault of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

The movie frames Harding as a victim, surrounded by people who never have her best interest in mind. At one point in the movie, where Harding has a malfunction with her skates just moments before her competition, viewers feel sympathy for her situation; although onlookers at the time who believed she was responsible for the assault of Kerrigan vindictively enjoyed seeing her sheer panic.

Even though biopics have the potential to revamp a person’s reputation, unfortunately, many biopics only dramatize people’s lives excessively, or in the worst cases, they exploit the people they portray.

“Blonde,” a new Netflix biopic about Marilyn Monroe, has been criticized for its abundant sexual scenes, some of which are extremely violent. The biopic is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s novel of the same name, and both the book and film include many fictional scenes. Thus, some audiences have concluded that “Blonde” is a film that uses a popular icon and shock-value scenes to draw in viewers and is yet another example of studios milking a celebrity’s story.

Exploitive biopics are also those that are created without consent from the subject or the subject’s family. “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” starring Hilary Duff as actress Sharon Tate, a victim of the Manson Murders, is one. Tate’s sister, Debra Tate, expressed her distaste for the film, calling it “classless” and “exploitative” to the New York Daily News.

Although not yet released, “The Gabby Petito Story,” a biopic about a young vlogger who was murdered by her boyfriend in August of 2021, is set to begin airing on Oct. 1, 2022. Especially with the case still ongoing, viewers are less than optimistic that this television series will be able to portray the victim’s case respectfully.

But even with these issues, biopics can still be positive. “The Crown” is a biopic that has, according to some royals, including Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and the Queen herself, stayed respectful despite exaggerating many events. However dramatized, it has still helped to foster more sympathy for the late queen.

Thus, biopic after biopic, these films seem to be a toss-up. Making a biopic is easy, but making one that is respectful, interesting and meaningful is much harder.

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