Film Critic Simran Bains explores the recent explosion in biopic films, questioning their value for cinema

Written by Simran Bains
Last updated

The year 2023 saw a rise in the release of biographical or ‘biopic’ movies, a dramatization of the lives of public and historical figures throughout time, from beloved musical artists to the creator of the atomic bomb. However, the increase of biopic films has been greeted with a widely negative reception, with most films, excluding Christopher Nolan’s Oscar nominated Oppenheimer (2023), underperforming at the box office. With further biopics anticipated for the new year, the question of the genre’s popularity arises, particularly amid controversies involving historical inaccuracies, ethical implications, and the greedy cash grab intentions that potentially fuel a biographical production. So, why is the biopic becoming so popular with audiences? And is the genre actually causing more harm than good for cinema?

there are ethical consequences that follow the creation of a biopic, shrouding the genre in inevitable controversy

A recognised plus for biopics, is their ability to provide a lens through which we can explore critical moments in history, such as the development of the atomic bomb in Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023)an event that changed the course of history. A large majority of historical biopics retell crucial events that have been glossed over in textbooks and classrooms, providing an equally educational and entertaining experience for audiences, who might favour the big screen as opposed to dense reading on the subject. In fact, Oppenheimer is praised by critics for ‘an effective blend of historical documentary with dramatic thriller and biography’, suggesting a positive response for the biopic genre. This is fortified by the film’s star-studded cast, with Cillian Murphy’s compelling performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss to name a few; the cast alone is enough to entice an audience to watch Nolan’s biopic, driving the film’s success.

Another recent historical biopic is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (2023), showcasing the ruthless military commander’s climb to emperor, with Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s starring role. However, while Nolan’s biopic became a box office success, Scott suffered an overwhelmingly negative response from critics and audiences for his biopic. The overall consensus was that Napoleon was unengaging and a futile story to tell, with one critic claiming ‘I knew nothing more about Napoleon than I did when it started’Napoleon demonstrates the consequences of a biopic that embellishes the truth, rather becoming a dull historical fiction that Phoenix alone could not salvage, as opposed to the strong biographical piece that Oppenheimer became, from its accurate plot and engaging performances.

A still from Oppenheimer (2023), a notable recent biopic.

Furthermore, in recent years, a high volume of musical biopics have surfaced, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022). Austin Butler’s performance struck a chord with avid Elvis Presley fans, mounting to the film’s success, and suggesting the power of the biopic in enabling audiences to feel a deeper connection to seemingly superficial household names, through revealing their poignant untold perspectives. Therefore, the release of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (2023) comparatively evoked a negative reaction from enraged Elvis fans, as the singer is portrayed in a much different, harsher light under Coppola’s vision, from the newly told perspective of his wife, Priscilla Presley. Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, also shared her discontent with Coppola’s biopicarguing the script was ‘vengeful and contemptuous’, by harming the reputation of her deceased father. Thus, there are ethical consequences that follow the creation of a biopic, shrouding the genre in inevitable controversy, due to the sensitive nature of dramatizing the life of a deceased public figure.

The motive for a biopic should be to educate audiences on significant moments in time, and to preserve the legacy of icons throughout history

A successful biopic therefore ensures the involvement of the people on whom they are based, such as Antoine Fuqua’s upcoming film Michael (2025), sharing the story of pop icon Michael Jackson. Playing Michael Jackson is his nephew, Jaafar Jackson, suggesting a considerate, truthful biopic is in the works, which is thus likely to achieve positive audience and critic reviews, while evading any ethical issues. Ethical consideration, a strong cast, and a story as close to the truth as possible is the formula necessary for a biopic to survive at the box office, as proven by Oppenheimer and Elvis, and will most likely be the case for Michael alsoThe motive for a biopic should be to educate audiences on significant moments in time, and to preserve the legacy of icons throughout history, as these films have proven. Others, however, such as Napoleon, indicate a cash grab from directors who senselessly jump onto the biopic bandwagon, with no real consideration for the film’s plot and its purpose. A biopic can therefore go in one of two directions, but will nonetheless be devoured by curious audiences.

Enjoyed reading this feature? Check out these other excellent features from Redbrick Film:

In Defence of: Hollywood | Redbrick Film

The Death of Originality in Cinema and the Surplus of Sequels | Redbrick Film

Redbrick Rewind: 10 Things I Hate About You | Redbrick Film