Inspiration for art often comes from extraordinary circumstances, so it is no surprise that creative professionals tend to have fascinating life stories with narratives fit for the movies. In addition to their own creative output, their journeys provide material for biographies and biopics, giving the public a chance to look into the minds of the masters. While the film industry is known to embellish the truth or change facts about a subject’s life for the sake of drama and storytelling, many biopics provide entertaining overviews of the lives of celebrated artists. Here are 10 biopics that tell the stories of famous creative professionals.
Capote follows the story of Truman Capote as he progresses in the writing of his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Upon reading about the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas, Capote travels there to chronicle their case along with his friend Harper Lee, and in the course of his investigation, develops an interesting relationship with one of the convicted murderers, Perry Smith. Capote’s story turns into a novel, and the film follows his documentation and writing process. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Capote, capturing the writer’s look and demeanour with uncanny accuracy, and the film was well-received by critics and audiences alike.
Saadat Hasan Manto, the Urdu writer who wrote extensively about the partition of India, is the subject of Nandita Das’s film Manto. From his time as a screenwriter in Bombay to his later days in Lahore, the film recounts his life and showcases his work, bringing five of his short stories to life amidst the narrative. The film evokes the horrors of the partition through Manto’s writing and perspective, and demonstrates his resolve to continue writing about topics considered taboo even when facing a trial for obscenity in his work. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Manto, and alongside him Rasika Dugal plays his wife Safia. In addition to the account of the brilliant writer’s life story, Manto demonstrates the historical importance of free thought and free speech.
Regarding Susan Sontag
This documentary (not biopic, though we’ll allow it on the list) captures the life of Susan Sontag through footage of the writer herself, accounts from friends and family, and her own work read by actor Patricia Clarkson. As a writer, filmmaker, and activist, among other occupations, Sontag wore many hats, and courageously expressed her often polarizing views on various social issues. She wrote prolifically about an array of subjects, from different forms of art to war and illness. Nancy Kates’s experimental film presents a nuanced exploration of Sontag’s life and work, providing an insight into the mind of this cultural critic.
Salma Hayek was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter, in this biopic directed by Julie Taymor. The story begins when Kahlo is 18, and a road accident causes injuries which result in chronic pain for the rest of her life. It is then that she starts to paint, and the film follows her journey as an artist, as well as her tumultuous relationship with the painter Diego Rivera, played by Alfred Molina. Hayek captures Kahlo’s unique spirit, and the film brings some of her most famous paintings to life. Kahlo’s work drew from Mexican folk art, and though her paintings were not well-known during her lifetime, she has since become an icon in art history.
Jackson Pollock’s “drip” technique is easily recognizable, and he is hailed as a major contributor to abstract expressionism. Ed Harris’s film Pollock, which he directs as well as stars in, recounts the development of Pollock’s style and his personal and professional struggles. Pollock grappled with alcoholism and other mental health issues in his lifetime, and while these aspects certainly feature in the film, his creative painting process is given much importance. Marcia Gay Harden won an Academy Award for her performance as Lee Krasner, the artist who became Pollock’s wife. Ed Harris’s deep connection to the figure of Pollock is evident both in his portrayal of the painter and in his direction of the film, making for a worthy homage to the artist.
Though John Lennon has been portrayed on screen numerous times, Nowhere Boy focuses on Lennon’s years as a teenager. The film relates the formative years of the Beatles, as well as the story of Lennon’s family and his relationships with his mother Julia and his aunt Mimi. As the narrative progresses, John discovers various truths about his family kept secret from him in childhood. Aaron Johnson plays Lennon, and while he bears little resemblance to the musician, his performance captures his coming-of-age. The film, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, is based on the account of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half-sister.
This movie depicts the life of the singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez, often called the Queen of Tejano music. Jennifer Lopez takes on the role of Selena as the film describes her childhood introduction to music and the formation and rise of her family band, Selena y Los Dinos. Selena was incredibly popular among fans of Latin music, and was working on a crossover album when she was murdered at the age of 23 by the manager of her boutiques. In addition to her career, the film focuses on Selena’s relationship with her father and other family members, as well as with her husband, Chris Perez. Released in 1997, just two years after Selena’s death, the film honours her talent and brings her story to a wider audience than her music was able to reach.
What’s Love Got to Do with It
This film showcases Tina Turner’s rise to fame as well as her personal journey of overcoming her abusive relationship with Ike Turner. Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne give stellar performances as the Turners, landing them both Oscar nominations. The film is based on Tina Turner’s autobiography, I, Tina, and follows her story, beginning at her childhood in Tennessee, from joining Ike Turner’s band to achieving professional success on her own. Turner interacted with Bassett in the production of the film, and also re-recorded songs for the soundtrack. Providing a glimpse behind the scenes of show business, What’s Love Got to Do with It highlights Tina Turner’s courage and resilience.
As opposed to the biography of an artist, Hitchcock is a film that delves deeply into a specific period of its subject’s life; the time during which Alfred Hitchcock, played by Anthony Hopkins, created his masterpiece Psycho. The movie follows the production process from Hitchcock’s initial idea to the film’s screening. Through the entire undertaking, Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, played by Helen Mirren, collaborates with him. Overcoming the doubt of studio executives and other challenges, the pair work together to produce Psycho. This meta-movie is one of many about the character and process of Hitchcock, and is based on Stephen Rebello’s book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho.
This Spanish-language film tells the story of Carlos Acosta, the first black guest dancer for the Royal Ballet in London. As a child in Cuba, Acosta is reluctant to take up ballet, but his father refuses to let him waste his natural talent, even resorting to physical violence to keep him in line. As a young man, Carlos leaves his family and home as his career picks up and he achieves professional success. Acosta himself appears in the film as well, as it features powerful biographical dance sequences choreographed by him. Directed by Icíar Bollaín, with a script adapted from Acosta’s memoir by Paul Laverty, the film brings this dancer’s fascinating journey to the screen beautifully.
As the genre of nonfiction film grows in popularity, many more artists are becoming the subjects of documentaries and biographical films. In spite of the inevitable fictionalization that comes with filmmaking, biopics are a useful means to engage with an artist’s real life, providing a background to the pieces of creative work we know and love.