A genre that has spawned hits, classics, and Oscar winners over the decades, the biopic has had to evolve with the times to stay relevant. Amy Smith examines modern exponents of the genre to explore how the biopic has shifted style in the last few years, potentially winning over a new generation of fans in the process.
There has been a surge of biopics being released over the past decade – so much so that the genre is in danger of becoming formulaic and repetitive. In the past two years alone, there have been numerous biopics released about generation-defining icons. Some of them follow a simple biopic formula and some of them take a twist on the story or narrative style. I will be comparing the two styles done here by taking two films on each side (Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman), and looking at why I believe a change in style for the biopic is refreshing and needed, in a crowd where the genre is starting to be oversaturated.
The most successful biopic of recent years is Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of rock band Queen and, specifically, its frontman Freddie Mercury. Whilst being showy in its montages and concert sequences, this film seems to follow a linear narrative of the story of Queen. Whilst on a surface level this is entertaining and the concert sequences are very well shot and edited, the narrative is forced to be twisted on several occasions to fit the Hollywood narrative structure.
It seems like Brian May and Roger Taylor (members of Queen who worked as consultants on the film) wanted the entirety of Queen’s story to fit into half their career span, because the timeline is wholly inaccurate. The biggest offender, the AIDS storyline that is tragically synonymous with Freddie now, is brought into the story before the Live Aid concert, which is far from the truth. There will be Queen fans that appreciate this film for trying to capture the spirit of the band and the struggles that they did go through, but there will be purists that know that Bohemian Rhapsody is just a much-simplified and truth-twisting version of a long journey that the band had to to face to get to where they are now.
The Live Aid concert scene in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Another recent film that takes a standard approach to the biopic formula is Judy, based on the later life of Hollywood icon, Judy Garland. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, this film takes place in a confined amount of time, focusing on the downfall of Judy’s life. Judy is fully centred around a single performance, performed by Renée Zellweger. That single performance elevates the film to a higher quality, purely because she is the single focal point. This biopic comes off as repetitive at times, following a very simple narrative. From the flashbacks that force information about Judy down the audience’s throat, to the repetitiveness of the story and the overdramatisation of her situation at times, this feels like a very standard biopic that would fall short if not for Renée Zellweger’s Oscar-winning turn as the traagic star.
In contrast, there have been two films that have been released in the past year that made bold choices with their narrative style. The first one I am going to talk about is Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Based on an Esquire article about Fred “Mister” Rogers, an American chidlren’s TV personality. This biopic is told as if it is an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Instead of having the subject matter, Fred Rogers, be the forefront of the film, it is instead about journalist Lloyd Vogel (inspired heavily by Esquire writer, Tom Junod). Not only does the presentation of the film stylistically work for the narrative, lightening the dark tones of the film and giving the audience an extra insight into Fred Rogers, but it would be hard to write a biopic of Fred Rogers using the standard narrative formula because of his personality, always looking out for others and not being the centre of attention no matter what. Having Fred be the side character helping out the journalist, like he did in real life, showcases what sort of person Fred was and helps make the film feel more authentic.
The second biopic that came out recently that also has fun with its narrative style was Rocketman (2019), based on the life of singer-songwriter Elton John. What makes this film so different to any other previously discussed is that Elton personally worked on this, shaping the film as production went, from writing the music to being on-set throughout. Not only does this help make the film feel a lot more authentic, but Elton was prepared to make himself look human and flawed in parts. With Bohemian Rhapsody, it almost feels sanitised clean despite their huge parties and rock star lives. Brian and Roger in particular tried to come off looking good and loyal, which in real life was not always the case (Roger was the first to go off solo, not Freddie). With Judy, the story and flashbacks kept constantly reminding the audience that Judy Garland was only destructive and worn out because the industry ruined her, which was the case but left her with a lack of individual personality at times. Rocketman truly felt like Elton’s story and his personal life, the struggles and the high moments.
The other aspect about Rocketman that helps change the format stylistically is that the film was structured as a musical. Not musical moments placed randomly throughout, not concerts that did little to drive the story, actual musical moments led by Taron Egerton (as Elton John) that tied exactly to the narrative at that moment. Several other actors, such as Richard Madden, join in on the musical sequences and this helped add a bit of personality and life to the film. Rocketman takes the concept of telling somebody’s entire life story to this day and has complete fun with it, leading to great performances and a compelling story that feels real and truly personal. It is also the only film on this list to be R-rated, showing Elton’s tougher moments as they truly were, such as his struggles with sexuality and drug abuse, and not sugar-coating anything.
With several huge bio-pics on the horizon, from Bob Dylan, to David Bowie, to Elvis Presley, the market is in danger of becoming oversaturated, if it isn’t already. Audiences may grow tired of the formulaic nature of these movies, so I hope the teams behind these new projects see how innovative and fresh a biopic can be, if you take the subject matter and add a twist or a fresh lick of paint here and there. Whether it is changing the narrative structure or finding a different way to place the music into the film, the biopic genre can live on and still provide some great movies. It clearly has in the past few years.