With Bohemian Rhapsody (dir. Bryan Singer) being a huge hit after its release in late October, I came to realise how much we all gush at the idea of a ‘true story’. There’s something intimate about seeing the personal life of someone who, in most cinematic cases, came to be extraordinary. And witnessing their difficult journey reminds us that underneath, they are human just like us. That we are capable of extraordinary things too.
Now, there’s a lot of biopics out there. And I mean a lot. So below I’ve narrowed down some of the best true stories to get your teeth into:
7) The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh, 2014)
Much like Bryan Singers biography of Freddy Mercury, The Theory of Everything was a massive success with the public. Though attacks have been made by Jane Hawking for ‘glossing over’ certain hardships in their life, majority of the film remains true to her memoirs Traveling to Infinity (2007). We focus mainly on the infamous genius Steven Hawking’s early life; discovering his illness and his relationship with first wife Jane Hawking. In an epic tale of man defeating the odds (with the help of his wife) paralyzing motor neuron disease did not stop Hawking from achieving academic success or raising a family. Retold with a stroke of nostalgia (old film stock and soft lighting? Yes please!) themes of struggle, burden and compromise play important roles in preventing the film from becoming overly sentimentalized. With a less than Hollywood four-way love triangle (or square?). Marsh directs Hawing’s story with sensitivity and grace, and a beautiful performance by Eddie Redmayne makes this definitely worth a watch.
6) 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)
12 Years a Slave may seem fictional for all the horrors our protagonist encounters. But sadly, this heart-wrenching movie remains true to the word of mistakenly enslaved Solomon Northup, recording his experiences in 1853. Director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) gained recognition with his nothing short of masterpieces Hunger (2008) and Shame (2001). Star of both of these films, Michael Fassbender makes another appearance in this equally perfected biopic. A star cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano and many more, flex their talents in re-enacting the terrors of the American Civil War. Unflinchingly honest, McQueen tells the story of a free man from New York being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Uncommonly long takes becoming a trope in McQueen’s movies, we are tortured with another scene of a hanging. This is just one example of the many ways McQueen shows us the raw truth of black lives in 19th century America, using the cinematography, music and dialogue to their full potential.
5) Raging Bull (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Perhaps one of Scorsese’s most famous movies, Raging Bull is one of his early Robert De Niro starring jewels. Jake LaMotta is a middleweight boxer rising through the ranks to win the title of champion. Black and white cinematography and a legendary manipulation of silence crowns this film more than just a boxing flick. Unusually, this biopic is less than inspiring as our anti-hero is depicted as none less than a brawling domestic abuser. Self-destruction, violence and exploration of the human condition override the simple ‘boxing’ plotline. It’s deeper and grittier than that. De Niro’s knock out (no pun intended) performance is tantalizingly brutal. Which, when paired with Scorsese’s incredible eye for cinema, allows one epic viewer experience. LaMotta’s own insecurities and flaws seep into the boxing ring, enveloping the entire story with nothing but himself. You begin to forget this is a biopic at all, with the nostalgic tendency to sugar coat the genre being abolished for bitter realism. This is certainly one for the film buffs out there.
4) The Kings Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a classic, elegantly made British drama to entertain practically any audience member. And Tom Hooper certainly achieves this in directing a trio of respected actors in the retelling of King George VI’s life. Or, more specifically, his speech impediment. The ability to talk and communicate is a necessity for most people in life, but even more so when you’re about to become King of England. Therefore, we can immediately sympathise with Prince Albert’s difficult position. However, it’s Colin Firth’s dignified, theatrical performance that really captivates us, alongside his speech coach. The unlikely friendship is really at the core of Hooper’s moving story. British values of the stiff upper-lip is questioned, yet the need for tradition respected. The cinematography is simple but charming, never distracting from the story. Ultimately, The Kings Speech is a heart-warming, honest all rounder movie with some meaningful messages hidden inside.
3) The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum, 2014)
Benedict Cumberbatch seems to have developed a flair for smart-yet-socially impaired roles. And that talent is in full swing here. Performing the genius mathematician, speculated to be on the Autism spectrum, Cumberbatch shows yet another impeccable hand at acting. Yes, it may be just another gracefully furnished, warmly lit British biopic. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable. Tyldum creates a poignant, engaging drama on the man who practically invented the computer when cracking the Nazi Enigma code. The film is both a tragedy and a celebration of Turing’s life, shedding light on his achievements whilst exposing the prejudices of traditional English attitudes. More than just a man who made a computer, Cumberbatch sensitively handles the struggles Turing faced in his sexuality, his friendships and his childhood. As with majority of biopics, some small details are exaggerated from Tyldum’s original sources. But the heart of the film remains true, and what really matters is the acknowledgment of such a great man fighting for good against a world he doesn’t understand.
2) The Aviator (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2004)
Round two of Scorsese classics, except this time we shift forward through his filmography to the DiCaprio stage. The Aviator may not be one of Scorsese’s most acclaimed pieces, but is still a terribly good watch. Just prepare yourself a three-hour run time! Howard Hughes’s biopic unravels the surface of creative genius to reveal the instability beneath. Aviator. Film director. Business man. An epic tale of events for Scorsese to get his hands on. But what Scorsese is really interested in is Hughes as a person. Determined isn’t even the word for it. Verging on obsession, DiCaprio magnificently enacts Hughes neurotic need to achieve. Not to mention his chronic OCD. Scorsese instruments the camera, as ever, with innovative storytelling. The use of colour schemes and repeated motifs remind us this is a biopic made by skilled hands. And when matched with DiCaprio’s tightly wound performance, Hughes unbelievable life story has its darker roots revealed.
1) Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010)
The Social Network is another one of those films that, if you read the synopsis, sounds pretty boring. A guy who designed facebook? Not that much to go on, is it? But when placed in the well-trained hands of respected director David Fincher, it becomes one of the most highly accredited films ever made. Swamped in punchy, intelligent dialogue, Fincher sweeps audiences through a cinematic showpiece. A mix of courtroom drama and historical fiction, every word, movement, and breath of the characters is intentionally crafted. The tone and cinematography is not an inch out of line, in a dexterously co-ordinated exploration of the 21st century society. Mark Zuggerberg, the founder of facebook, is an almost sociopathic, down right irritating genius, with themes of betrayal and manipulation enough to rile up any audience. Though the concept may seem superficially dull to watch, every movie buff out there will back me up in saying this is one perfectly executed, intense and brilliantly acted thriller.
Honourable Mentions: Goodfellas; The Wolf of Wallstreet; Lincoln; I, Tonya; The Danish Girl and Ghandi.