Film & TV

Our Favourite Biopics

Following the release of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody this week, eight Quench contributors put forward their favourite biopics:

Harry Dixon on Amadeus (1984)

193 years after his death, the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was presented on film. The precocious creative genius of his youth spurred on by his domineering father; the toil of his financial difficulties; the lewd, crude folly; the high-societies of the European aristocracy; the tumultuous love; and, of course, the music: the music which enduringly delights and inspires. All are weaved together masterfully in Amadeus, a colourful tapestry of visual and auditory delight.

Milos Foreman’s 1984 film sees F. Murray Abraham playing Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s contemporary and rival, a man for whom artistic creation is a matter of perseverance and incremental improvement. As such, he looks upon Mozart (Tom Hulce), the man for whom the musical writing flows with ease, with resentment. This is the axis on which the film revolves: one of artistic rivalry. It is this rivalry between the two figures which frames the story and through which we learn the life of Mozart. Abraham’s performance is masterful in its ability to convey the seething jealousy that is always bubbling under the finery of his lace-collar. And yet, as an audience, we don’t find ourselves despising Salieri: towards the end of the film we even come to admire the man, his appreciation and admiration for Mozart, and his pure and unadulterated love of music – which is depicted with such grace and delicateness in numerous scenes, thanks to Forman’s sensitive direction. It is this evocation of complex feelings towards the characters of the story that contributes to the film’s triumph; they never feel one-dimensional or hollow, they feel red-blooded and real. It is Forman’s skilful direction that allows for a perfect balance between the intimacy of the central feud, all the jealousy and deceit which it entails, and the lavish and grand period setting with its even grander music.

Although the tale of Salieri is one tinged with bitterness and the end to Mozart a gloomy one, the film is remarkably joyous. The sets are opulent, the costumes extravagant, the operas loud, and when combined with the larger-than-life Mozart that Tom Hulce portrays (supposedly true to life, as the real Mozart’s nature was said to contradict the finery of his music), a film of splendour and sumptuousness is created. The film’s three-hour runtime, for me, amplifies this and renders the film an even weightier experience, but, understandably, could equally prove tiresome for many.

Despite classical music being a genre seen by many to be accessible only to those with a technical knowledge, the film excels in its ability to portray both the divinity and grandeur of the music, and its connection to the most elemental parts of each individual’s human condition. Amadeus is a film dressed in beautiful garb that demystifies one of music’s great figures: he was not, and is not, an inaccessible, higher-than-thou genius (though he was a genius), but a human being to which we can all relate.

 

Victoria Bond 0n BlacKKKlansman (2018)

A more recent biopic, Spike Lee’s compelling BlacKKKlansman details the true story of Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Colorado Springs KKK group. As an African-American himself, Ron Stallworth, portrayed by John David Washington, worked as an undercover police detective in Colorado Springs. Upon coming across a KKK newspaper advertisement in 1978, Stallworth made the precarious decision to reach out to the group in order to launch an investigation into their inner-workings. Using his Jewish co-worker, portrayed by Adam Driver, as a stand-in man for the face-to-face altercations with the Klan members, they were taken into many dark, dangerous situations and successfully infiltrated the group.

This film addresses a wide range of issues spanning from racial identity, racial representation, racism and even sexism; all of which are dealt with sensitivity and also satirical humour, adding a poignant yet also light-hearted tone to the film, transforming it into a dynamic piece of work with which the audience can empathise and above all, enjoy.

One aspect of this film that I found particularly captivating was Adam Driver’s performance as Flip Zimmerman, the Jewish detective that Stallworth used as his proxy to attend KKK meetings. Zimmerman appears to struggle with his racial identity throughout the film, repressing his Jewish heritage and using his white skin as a mask to hide his true background. As the film progresses, Zimmerman is constantly confronted with his racial identity as he finds himself cemented within racist and anti-Semitic views and consequently, has to affirm his identity within himself. Driver’s performance and ability to so subtly portray a man struggling with racial identity was personally my favourite aspect of the film, as this performance touches upon something so important yet somewhat repressed within society and so, opens the door for these frank discussions to be had.

Whilst Ron Stallworth’s investigation happened in the late 70’s, the film itself raises the question: how much has really changed? BlacKKKlansman was released in the US on 10th August 2018, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, a series of riots affiliated with white supremacist and white nationalist groups. This rally resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a counter protester to the white supremacists, after a car was driven into the crowd. The harrowing last scene of this film boldly presents the audience with the home videos of these riots, even paying tribute to Heather Heyer, ending on the moving image of the inverted American flag, symbolising distress and also, political protest. Through these references to Charlottesville, the film somewhat becomes a cautionary tale, providing insight into recent affairs through retrospection and therefore, I believe BlacKKKlansman is much more than a biopic: it is a political statement. For both movie-lovers and those interested in these socio-political and racial issues, this film is a must see.

 

Lewis Empson on First Man (2018)

First Man, directed by Damian Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) recounts the journey of Neil Armstrong, here played by Ryan Gosling, in becoming the first man to set foot on the moon. First Man’s greatest strength as a biopic is that it does not get lost in the event; whilst various NASA space programmes are undoubtedly present and relevant to the story, as well as many key events (such as planting the flag) the film recognises that it is truly about the ‘first man’, and so never loses focus on telling the audience Armstrong’s story. And what a story it is – the journey is filled with heartbreaking family trauma, contrasted with triumphant achievement and celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements.

The setting of the film is wonderfully realised, delivering an authentic late 60s atmosphere through the use of cars, clothes and technology within the film to transport you back into that era. This sense of immersion is aided by the use of vintage film cameras, which provide a subtle film grain throughout the movie, which helps to deepen the sense of immersion. Chazelle presents his prowess behind the camera once again by providing some seriously jaw dropping shots – I cannot emphasise how incredible this film looks. Almost every shot type imaginable is used in this film and all with significance. Precise and clinical shots and camera movements are used within the NASA facilities to highlight the mathematical and scientific importance of the institution. These are contrasted perfectly with the use of handheld, home video-style shots taken on a camcorder by a family member during scenes in the Armstrong family home.

However, arguably, the best use of these specific shot types would be the extreme close and point of view perspective shots in the scenes within the cockpits of the space shuttles. They provide such an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, anxiety and dread, that invokes such unease it had me biting my nails and on the edge of my seat, even though I knew the exact outcome of the real-life event.

Another important aspect of a good biopic involves a convincing and finely tuned performance that embodies the subject of the film. Ryan Gosling’s performance is captivating, providing a stoic and emotionally reserved portrayal of Neil Armstrong. However, during the film’s more emotional scenes, especially those involving death (a topic that this film does not shy away from), Gosling delivers a vulnerable take on the usually emotionally stunted Armstrong. Instead, it is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong that delivers the emotional core of the film, giving a glimpse at the stress, frustration and fear felt in watching a loved one risking their life in the pursuit of the unknown. Both of their performances were intriguing and had me fascinated throughout.

Put simply, First Man is stellar; comprised of stunning camera work, captivating performances and an engaging story. It really is… out of this world.

 

Serena Khemaney on Mary Kom (2014)

Global megastar Priyanka Chopra packs a powerful punch in the biopic of the Olympic-winning boxing champion Mary Kom.

Released in September 2014, Mary Kom is a loosely fictionalised account of India’s most famous female boxer. In a tight two hours, the audience is told how the belligerent daughter of a poor rice farmer in Manipur, East India, fought against all odds; corruption, gender bias, lack of funding, and later marriage and motherhood to emerge victorious and consistently maintain her position as a five-time world champion. Mary Kom is an inspiring and remarkable story of grit and relentless passion. What I love about the film is the message it carries; nothing is impossible. If you seriously desire something and have a passion for it, then the entire world and universe conspires with you to help you achieve it.

Undoubtedly, what propels the film is a remarkable performance by Priyanka Chopra, who plays the titular role. For those who aren’t familiar with the lead actress, Chopra is an ex-Miss World winner who successfully went on to be one of the biggest megastars in the Hindi Film (Bollywood) industry. She has also been the recipient of the National Award, the Indian equivalent of an Oscar.

Chopra meets the challenge of playing Mary Kom head on. Her shoulders and arms are sculpted to look lethal. Her face is a deadly amalgam of rage and vulnerability. The only issue I had was with the screenplay. The director, Omung Kumar, utilises a flashback structure, where we go from one pivotal moment to another. It is a dramatic story, but the first half is inexplicably unmotivated. Thankfully, the film’s momentum greatly escalates in the second half once Mary gets married and has her twin boys.

Despite its flaws, Mary Kom is a worthy attempt. The film reflects the director and writer’s sincerity and has been crafted with great care. Aside from Mary, the audience are given another terrific male role model; Onler – who encouraged his wife to return to boxing while he looked after the home and their two sons. Someone should have given him a medal too!

 

Alex Briggs on The Disaster Artist (2017)

When thinking of subjects of biographical movies, Tommy Wiseau, the director, writer, producer and leading actor of The Room, one of the best worst movies of time, is a fascinating choice. To this day, we know little of Wiseau’s background beyond his strange accent and love for the USA. We don’t know his true age, or, more importantly, how he was able to afford the $6 million budget to get the movie made. He’s a strange man, that seemingly came out nowhere to make one of the most infamous movies of all time. This is where James Franco’s biopic, The Disaster Artist comes in.

In this film, we see the origins of Greg Sistero (Dave Franco) as he meets the elusive Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) at an acting class, after watching him perform an eccentric yet fearless rendition of A Street Car Named Desire. Wiseau spontaneously asks him to travel to Hollywood and, after being constantly rejected from acting agencies, the two decide to make a film of their own. It is here that we see Tommy’s ego and incompetence morph the movie into the disaster we all know and love.

What makes The Disaster Artist work is that it manages to present both the laughable and human sides of Wiseau as a person. It has the humour that you’d expect from a movie about the making of The Room. James Franco’s impression of Wiseau is near spot on and when they pay homage to the memes of the original, the result is pure hilarity. That being said, it is the more humble and down to earth side of the movie that truly makes it.

Wiseau is not presented as the best person. He is arrogant and demanding, treating his cast and crew horribly despite his own ineptitude. You truly grow to detest his attitude; however, at the same time, you can’t really bring yourself to hate him. At the end of the day, the movie tells the story of someone who has been told time and time again that they cannot be in the film industry and yet being so passionate and crazy that they decided to try anyway. Wiseau’s determination to make this film in spite of all the setbacks (most of which are caused by himself) are what makes him enduring even at his most deplorable.

When Tommy Wiseau finally makes a speech at the premiere screening of the movie, he declares that “this is my movie, this is my life”. It sounds silly and awkward, but also genuine and meaningful, which probably the best way to describe The Room. Regardless of the good and bad, he put everything he had into making this movie and, in the end, people loved it even if it wasn’t for the reasons that he wanted them to. As a biopic, The Disaster Artist truly encompasses both the disaster and the artist, in both laughs and heart.

 

Vittoria Zerbini on Marie Antoinette (2006)

Something about Sofia Coppola’s colourful films attracts the eye. Something about the stories she decides to narrate. Something about the troubled characters. There is always something. Something hard to pinpoint at first, but not that hard if only you stop to think about it.

However, Marie Antoinette was not received too well by the critics back in 2006, who all asked the same questions. Where is the substance? Why is it so feminine? Where is Marie Antoinette? The answer is that they’re all in Coppola’s critique of contemporary Hollywood, women’s representation, and the media which are embedded in Versailles itself, making this a feminist and postmodern film.

In representing Marie Antoinette, Coppola does not want to show the historical Dauphine, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. Rather, she wants to use her as a tool to emphasise how Versailles destroyed her personality, and how she tried to take it back through commodities such as clothes, makeup, shoes, pastries, champagne, and, finally, Le Petit Trianon.

Thanks to how distant to the Dauphine Le Petit Trianon’s bucolic scenes feel, Coppola wants us to know that Marie Antoinette escape is just a fantasy; a beautiful dream that will eventually end because of the power that Versailles has over her life. Furthermore, during these scenes, Coppola’s stylistic decisions emerge at their best: colour, light, texture and dreamlike images are what create the feeling of freedom that Marie Antoinette experiences. She even escapes the tight and restrictive court dresses, even though she made a name out of her extravagant style, which is very well represented in one of the most famous montage of the film: the sequence of shoes, fabrics, wigs and cakes that follow one another on the notes of Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy.

To be honest, I could continue with an in-depth analysis of why Marie Antoinette is a good feminist and postmodern film, but the reality is that what really made me fall in love with it, was the pastel colours, the soft and caressing light, and the representation of a bunch of the most famous royals of the Eighteenth century, who were nothing more than childish teenagers when they ascended to the throne. There is a sense of joy and of complicity in the sadness of a difficult, and maybe wrong, marriage. There is a sense of freedom in the limitations of Versailles, a huge machine whose role was to produce the illusion of a perfect court, in order to keep the population at bay. Of course, things did not go as planned in 1789.

 

Sallie Phillips on The Theory of Everything (2015)

‘The Theory of Everything’ details the life and work of Professor Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned physicist who suffered from motor neurone disease, and sadly died in March of this year. The film marked Eddie Redmayne’s first leading film role, and won him the Best Actor award at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTA awards. I particularly love the film because I feel it is a touching tribute to a great scientist and man who defied so many odds, both personal and professional. It is also one of my favourite films, due to the brilliant performances of the actors playing Stephen and his wife Jane; Redmayne and Felicity Jones respectively.

Although the film may not be completely historically accurate (as many who knew Hawking have criticised it), I feel it is does the story justice in the eyes of Jim Wilde, whose memoir it is based upon. The Theory of Everything is able to brilliantly capture the extraordinary story of a man who was given only two years to live, but managed to live 55 years beyond his original diagnosis. I think much of my appreciation of the film comes from the inspirational nature of Stephen himself, and the strength of his first wife Jane, as they battle the disease together, knowing that eventually it will kill him.

The awards the film won, and the reviews it received, say a lot about its quality. This was, without parallel, one of the best films of 2015, and this is made even more impressive given that it was released on New Year’s Day.

The film tells Stephen’s story with dignity and grace, and does justice to one of the greatest men that the world has ever known.

 

Indigo Jones on Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can’ tells the story of Frank Abagnale Jr, a teenager who managed to forge millions of dollars’ worth of cheques as he posed as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. He succeeds in creating an entirely new life for himself, on more than one occasion, with such ease that it seems so outrageous and improbable. He benefits from these careers without the necessary qualifications and training and, instead, relies upon his charming personality and ability to lie to get ahead. The tagline of this Academy award nominated film – ‘the true story of a real fake’ – immediately sets the tone of the film, as it leaves its audience utterly baffled at how someone could lead the life of Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. As the film is factual, the audience become drawn in, wanting to learn more about the crimes that Abagnale committed, and discover how he managed to get away with them for so long.

Not only does Abagnale successfully commit these crimes, he prospers whilst fleeing from the police and the FBI on several occasions. In the film, Frank forms a bond with the leading FBI agent (although Abagnale has admitted this did not happen in real life), helping to humanize his character and almost make the audience feel sorry for him, knowing that he doesn’t have any real friends or family in his life that is based on a string of lies.

Although nobody should glorify the crimes committed by Abagnale, it is hard not to admit that they are pretty impressive. The audience begin to sympathise with Abagnale Jr’s character, as they discover that his reasoning for going in to crime was his tough upbringing. Personally, I believe that this could be the reason that I find the film so interesting and entertaining to watch, as I myself imagine what it would be like to live a life as extravagant and impulsive as his.

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