Andrew Dominik’s NC-17 Blonde has faced controversy since its inception: for its rating, for its source material (a highly fictionalized Joyce Carol Oates novel), and later for interviews with its director. A lot of things can sink a biopic: pedestrian plotting; bad performances; bad makeup; etc., but sometimes reasonably good or even great movies fail their subjects by ignoring them entirely in favour of telling a story that the filmmakers want to tell. Any cinematic take on a celebrity or historical figure is going to be fiction, but some dodge the truth more egregiously than others. It’s also paradoxically true that movies can capture someone’s essence (or at least their public persona) without getting all the facts straight. It’s a complicated genre.
The following biopics all fall short of their targets, which is not to say that they’re all terrible (only that most of them are) — but we’ve also got better alternatives if you’re still interested in the lives of Marilyn, Tupac, Diana, Nina, or any of these others.
Avoid: Blonde (2022)
Subject: The Blonde Bombshell herself — Marilyn Monroe
Andrew Dominik is a gifted filmmaker, but Blonde revels in torturing its protagonist. It’s fine that much of this never actually happened, but we’ve seen the women+sex=death story before; this one grafts Marilyn onto that narrative without being particularly interested in the person.
Watch: Love, Marilyn (2012)
Marilyn Monroe’s legend survives precisely because the reality of the woman so easily slips through our fingers. She’s not a person, but a repository for our desires and fears around sexuality and celebrity. That’s a double-edged sword with regard to her legacy: She remains relevant sixty years after her death because of that blank-slate quality, but it would be nice if we could approach her, at least once, as a human being rather than an inevitable tragedy of sex and death. Love, Marilyn isn’t a biopic, but a documentary using archival footage and famous voices (Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Zoe Saldana, etc.) to recreate Marilyn’s own words, with special emphasis on a trove of poems, diaries, and letters that had only just been discovered. It’s just about as close as you’ll get to hearing the actress speak for herself.
Avoid: All Eyes on Me
Subject: Tupac Shakur
In spite of solid performances all around (particularly from leads Demetrius Shipp Jr. as Tupac and Danai Gurira as Afeni Shakur), All Eyes on Me plays like the most conventional of biopics, managing to avoid hitting most of the big emotional beats that any telling of the rap icon’s life demands.
Watch: Tupac Resurrection
Though there’s no attempt at objectivity in director Lauren Lazin’s documentary (and that’s OK), this is an attempt to tell Tupac’s story in his own words. Because he left behind so many interviews and recordings, Shakur narrates from beyond the grave (thus: “Resurrection”), creating an effect that’s both eerie and enlightening. It remains one of the highest-grossing documentaries in American box office history, and was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Avoid: Diana (2013)
Subject: Diana, Princess of Wales
Naomi Watts is fine here, but that’s about it. Nothing else rises above TV-movie adequacy.
Watch: Spencer (2021)
It’s not a documentary, nor even a particularly accurate portrait of the events of Diana’s life, but those in the know have suggested strongly that the portrait on display here captures something of the princess that every other film take has missed. Rather than cover her entire life, Pablo Larraín’s dreamy movie takes place over one particularly fraught Christmas holiday — an approach that’s often more successful than the more typical biopic style of trying to cram everything in. Kristen Stewart is great.
Avoid: Nina (2016)
Subject: The High Priestess of Soul — Nina Simone
Troubled from the outset by its colorist casting (lead Zoe Saldana required extensive and obvious prosthetics and darkening make-up to even resemble Simone), the finished film did absolutely nothing to diffuse that controversy. It has nothing of interest to say about Nina’s life and career, side-stepping her achievements in favour of a sometimes sitcom-ish take on an older, more “difficult” Simone. Nothing works here, and the usually great Saldana doesn’t even seem to be trying. Both director and star have distanced themselves from the finished product.
Watch: What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) captures something of the danger and electricity of Simone’s art and activism at their height. Simone was near the very centre of Black culture and revolution during the 1960s, and this documentary speaks to her power and importance.
Avoid: The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000)
Subject: The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson
The TV miniseries was popular, and picked up a couple of significant Emmy nominations. It starts well with the early lives of the Wilson brothers under their domineering father. Once the series turns to Brian’s mental health struggles, however, things go off the rails and into near-parody territory.
Watch: Love & Mercy (2014)
Focusing on Brian Wilson at two different periods in his life, Love & Mercy offers up a far more sensitive and interesting portrayal of mental illness, thinking a bit more deeply about the relationship between Wilson’s art and his struggles both at a moment in his life when he was facing them alone, and then later at a time when he had support.
Avoid: Jobs (2013)
Subject: Apple’s Steve Jobs
Somehow, Jobs robs one of the era’s most fascinating characters of any vibrancy whatsoever. It’s as by-the-numbers as biopics come, focusing on the facts of Jobs’ life without ever making us care.
Watch: Steve Jobs (2015)
Director Danny Boyle and writer Aaron Sorkin took another go at the Steve Jobs story just two years later, with much improved results. Sorkin’s sometimes stagey style of writing is contrasted by Boyle’s more energetic directorial style to great effect, and no one involved is afraid to deal with the contradictions in Jobs’ character, nor his mythic (and/or self-aggrandizing) public persona.
Avoid: Stardust (2020)
Subject: David Bowie, The White Duke
Stardust is dull and pedestrian by almost any standard, but feels especially languid given the vibrance of its subject. A cool opening and a pretty good lead performance from Johnny Flynn can’t save it; the filmmakers’ inability to licence any of Bowie’ music is devastating.
Watch: Moonage Daydream (2022)
A long and gorgeous fever dream that dives deep into Bowie’s mind over the course of decades, largely using his own words to guide the narrative. It feels like the kind of movie the artist would have made about himself were he around to do it, and ends up as a revelatory look at the creative process and the ways his own changed over time.
Avoid: Elvis & Nixon (2016)
Subject: Elvis Presley
It’s diverting, but not much more than that — a movie about the meeting of these two towering figures (for better or worse) should have more to say. Michael Shannon is a surprisingly good Elvis, and Kevin Spacey is fine…but his movies, especially the middling ones, aren’t ageing well these days.
Watch: Elvis (2022)
My first instinct is to direct you to the 1979 John Carpenter TV movie…but it’s not currently streaming anywhere. So, if you can’t get your hands on that gem, the recent Baz Luhrmann jukebox musical brings his usual high-energy style. Like all Luhrmann’s movies, it borders on the edge of tacky — not unlike the King himself.
Avoid: Nixon (1995)
Subject: FPOTUS Richard Nixon
“Avoid” is, perhaps, too strong a word. Oliver Stone’s presidential passion play is a fascinating study and a pretty good movie — but, like Stone’s (better) JFK, it has more to say about the director’s idiosyncrasies than it does about its subject. There’s nothing really wrong with that, exactly, but as in Blonde, it’s hard to feel like we come away with any insight into the person in the title.
Watch: Dick (1999)
There are several reasonably good movies dealing with Richard Nixon and Watergate (All the President’s Men, of course, and Frost/Nixon among them), but the sometimes silly slapstick of Dick captures something that those others miss, tying a national loss of innocence directly to Nixon’s own larger-than-life malice and insecurity.
Avoid: J. Edgar (2011)
Subject: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover
The primary image left in my mind after Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is that of Leonardo DiCaprio slathered in makeup…always a bad sign for a biopic when the prosthetics become distracting. There’s more, though, or rather less: The film refuses to take any particularly strong stance on Hoover’s life and work, and so winds up blandly coasting along.
Watch: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
There’s no reasonably good biopic focused on Hoover himself, and that’s probably fine. His impact during his decades as America’s chief law enforcement officer are far more consequential and interesting than any personal foibles or tragedies. Here, Martin Sheen plays Hoover at a critical moment, using his authority to destroy Fred Hampton and discredit the Black Panther Party. His impact on America is where Hoover’s story truly lies, and Shaka King’s movie makes clear the extent of his power and willingness to use it.
Avoid: The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
Subject: Joan of Arc
I’m not sure that Joan of Arc belongs on a list with Marilyn Monroe…but I’m not entirely sure that she doesn’t. Both women became both more, and less, than the sum of their lives and experiences in the aftermaths of their tragic deaths. Here, Luc Besson directs Milla Jovavich in a movie that mostly wants to be a war-action movie, and so struggles in finding anything meaningful to say about Joan.
Watch: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film wrestles with Joan’s conscience, and her meaning to France and to faith then and now. Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s performance, even in a silent film, has never been bettered.
Avoid: The Conqueror (1956)
Subject: Genghis Khan
This is low-hanging fruit, absolutely, but the only possible reason to watch this 1950s American take on the life of Genghis Khan is for camp value. Classic-era Hollywood was never even remotely averse to casting white actors in roles for which they were not terribly well-suited…but John Wayne as The Great Khan takes the cake, it really does.
Watch: Mongol (2007)
Russian director Sergei Bodrov’s brilliantly exciting take on the life of Genghis Khan has an epic scope (of the kind that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore), but also an intimacy and depth that does its subject justice. The pan-Asian casting is at least much closer to the mark than the earlier, all-white Hollywood takes.