For years, audiences have loved reliving their favourite celebrities, icons or hero’s lives. We relish seeing how those who are considered ‘icons’ began their careers. However, the morality of a biopic can waver and this is especially the case when the subject of the film cannot have a say on how they are portrayed. To further examine this theme, let’s explore three biopics and their origins.
One of the most popular biopics with approval and insight from people close to the subject: Bohemian Rhapsody
Bohemian Rhapsody was a huge success when released in 2018, sweeping the award season and peaking with Rami Malek winning the Oscar for Best Actor. This prompted a discussion regarding the modern biopic and if the film could be respectful of someone’s life and legacy considering the star, Freddie Mercury, passed away in 1991. When it comes to this example, it differs.
Bohemian Rhapsody had direct approval, and guidance, from Queen’s two remaining active members: Brian May and Roger Taylor. They continuously made a point of honouring Freddie’s legacy in a genuine way. Arguably, the success that the film garnered shows this to be true; most audience members loved it. Many fans of Mercury and Queen enjoyed remembering how iconic the band’s frontman was, which suggests that their positive reactions are in part due to Bohemian Rhapsody’s accuracy and care when portraying Mercury’s life.
Despite being well-received, there were a minority of people who didn’t like the film. It is argued that it only received its awards and success because it centered around one of the most iconic musicians to have lived. Bohemian Rhapsody is successful in being respectful, and the claims that the film isn’t great seem to stem from the technical aspects, with some journalists hailing it as a “‘Masterclass’ in poor editing.” Nevertheless, through the film’s production process there was support and approval. Freddie’s sister, Kashmira Bulsara, openly approved of the film and praised it, appearing at premieres and on set.
A prime example of a successful biopic with approval from the celebrity directly: Rocketman.
Rocketman, starring Taron Egerton and Richard Madden, is arguably one of the better biopics to come from the industry. In addition, it had direct, overwhelming approval from Elton John himself. He chose, outright, to recall his life and tell his story with complete, though dramatised, honesty. John does not shy away from the issues he faced in his career: his battles with his sexuality, addiction and damaging relationships. Bohemian Rhapsody also does this, but Rocketman feels right especially considering it was released with input from John directly.
Still, it didn’t receive as much appraisal when compared to the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody. It seems as if, while a brilliant film and biopic overall, Bohemian Rhapsody gets leveled that one bit higher because it is cementing Mercury’s legacy. He is someone so greatly missed, an icon who was tragically taken before his time. In comparison, Elton John has, thankfully, lived through his hardships and come out the other side. He is still here. In my opinion, the film would have been more successful if John was not still so active in the music industry.
What happens when a biopic is not consented to by the celebrity or their family? Stardust tells us.
David Bowie’s death shocked the world when, in 2016, he passed away from liver cancer. It still hurts, years on, listening to “Life on Mars?” and remembering that he isn’t here. When news first broke that a Bowie biopic was in the works, there was a buzz of excitement. That was until rumours circulated that Bowie’s family and their representative did not want a film made about him, however fantastical it may be. When confirmed, things got worse. The director, Gabriel Range, still went ahead with production despite not being able to include any Bowie songs due to restrictions. Before the film was even released, it was clear it was unwanted. Bowie’s family, and a majority of his fans, weren’t ready for commentary on his legacy as many were still grieving.
Much of Stardust’s audience reacted similarly, and the film was also badly received by critics. Its release in late 2020 flew almost completely under the radar and Stardust scored a measly 20% on Rotten Tomatoes. It shows that viewers can recognise when a production is just a cash grab and not crafted with an intent to memorialize.
Stardust is a prime example of when the creation of a biopic is morally faulty and appears to be merely an opportunity to make money. On the other end of the spectrum, Rocketman overflows with appreciation, approval, and Bohemian Rhapsody sits nicely in the middle.
Personally, as someone who consumes a lot of film and media, biopics are enjoyable if done right. There’s a fascination surrounding celebrities and it feels like a well-made biopic scratches that itch. They’re fun, emotional and exciting.
Image from Shutterstock.