With the release of Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla on the horizon, and the success of recent box office hits such as Oppenheimer and, of course, Elvis, biopics have well and truly captured the zeitgeist once more. Copolla’s latest feature – her eighth to date – has already received rave reviews for its portrayal of Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) and Elvis Presley’s (Jacob Elordi) complicated and controversial relationship, as the former is sucked into the megastar’s volatile universe. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until December 26th for its full release, but in anticipation, we’ve rounded up the best biopics for you to enjoy in the meantime below.
What better place to start than Elvis? From his rise to fame to his superstardom and his prescription drug-addicted decline, Baz Luhrmann’s Bafta-winning 2022 film, starring Austin Butler (whose performance earned him an Oscar nom) and Tom Hanks, details the icon’s complicated relationship with his notorious manager, Colonel Tom Parker, over the course of 20 years. Parker famously had Presley locked into terrible contracts and had him sign on to star and perform in films and shows that were calculated only to pay off Parker’s gambling debts. Meanwhile, Priscilla is shown struggling to manage her husband’s increasingly erratic behaviour and his dependence on the pills prescribed by Parker’s chosen doctor.
Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee became one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation by the late 1980s, largely thanks to his excellent 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Malcolm X didn’t immediately follow after that film, but it was released just three years later and has generated a similar level of acclaim and adoration, being up there with Lee’s very best. It’s a huge film about a larger-than-life person, Malcolm X, a bold and sometimes controversial Black activist who fought for the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Ray Charles was an iconic singer-songwriter known for his unique approach to blues, jazz, and gospel music, succeeding in such a career after going blind in his childhood. The film Ray presents his dramatic life and the various struggles he overcame to find success within his field as a widely-celebrated musician. Like many music biopics, it gave its central actor a chance to fully inhabit a unique figure from history, in this case, providing Jamie Foxx with one of the best roles of his career. He captures Ray Charles in an almost uncanny way and makes Ray worth watching for his central performance alone.
A recent release but an incredible movie nonetheless, Oppenheimer is a remarkable achievement and a film that feels both epic and intimate in its scope. It’s about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer – portrayed immaculately by Cillian Murphy – particularly focusing on how he developed the first atomic bomb during World War II, and how it impacted his life after his creation was used to end the war, causing thousands upon thousands of casualties when dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Pianist (2002)
The Pianist is an adaptation of the autobiography of the same name written by Władysław Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer who survived the Holocaust. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody, who both won Oscars for their work on the film, The Pianist was nominated for seven Academy Awards and grossed more than $120 million.
Walk the Line (2005)
Telling the story of famous American country musician Johnny Cash, James Mangold’s 2005 biopic, Walk the Line, sees Joaquin Phoenix take on the role of the singer. The film uses two of Cash’s autobiographies as the basis for the script – 1975’s Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words and 1997’s Cash: The Autobiography – and details the late singer-songwriter’s rise to fame, his two marriages, and his addiction to drugs. Co-starring Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Robert Patrick, the movie was a box office hit and gained rave reviews from critics. It also earned five Academy Award nominations, with Phoenix taking home the award for Best Actor.
Straight Outta Compton (2015)
When it was released in cinemas in 2015, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton almost instantly became a financial success and a modern-day classic. Set in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, the film revolves around the formation and break-up of hip hop group N.W.A, whose members consisted of rappers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. Titled after the group’s debut album, it depicts their early success in the music industry, their rise to mainstream popularity, and the feuds, disputes, violence, and deaths that surrounded the group.
The Social Network (2010)
When David Fincher’s The Social Network was released in 2010, the social media platform, Facebook, had only been around for six years. In that time, the website had amassed an impressive 500 million global users and had become the third-largest web company in the US. A film that documented the company’s meteoric rise was, therefore, a no-brainer. The movie depicts Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who initially developed a website called ‘Facemash’ that allows users to rate the attractiveness of female students on campus. This soon grows in popularity, spreading to other colleges and attracting the attention of wealthy investors, and eventually, the idea of Facebook is born – though there are, of course, plenty of trials and tribulations along the way.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s heart-wrenching 1993 historical drama Schindler’s List is based on the Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s Ark and follows German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who helped save more than a thousand manly Polish-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust. Spielberg approached Schindler’s List as a documentary and shot the film in black and white, despite his reservations about whether he was mature enough to create such a picture. The esteemed director famously forwent a salary for the project, declaring it “blood money.” Liam Neeson took on the lead role of Oskar Schindler and was cast in part because he was a relative unknown; Spielberg did not want an actor’s star quality to overpower the character.