From shifts between color and black and white to an amorphous aspect ratio, Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ unabashedly fictionalized Marilyn Monroe biography, “Blonde,” is just as stylistically daring as you’ve heard. Beds transform into waterfalls, paparazzi and adoring fans become animatedly slack-jawed, and an invasive surgery is framed in utero. Dominik’s non-linear, psychosexual nightmare uses the real Monroe’s life as a backdrop to a commentary on celebrity worship and the durability of childhood traumas, and the results have been mixed, to say the least.
While movies nearly always take some degree of dramatic license, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a film that strives to mainly recreate events as they occurred and one that jettisons all pretense to reality. If something like “The Theory of Everything” or “Respect” is a touched-up photograph, “Blonde” is a surreal painting (Baz Luhrmann’s opulent “Elvis” resides somewhere in the middle). Though the straightforward, cradle-to-the-grave approach gains more considerable traction with awards bodies than the one “Blonde” takes, experimental alternatives to the standard aren’t as rare as you may think. Here are nine other impressionistic biopics that push the boundaries of storytelling for such a worn-out genre…
At Eternity’s Gate (2018)
There’s perhaps no subject more fit for an impressionistic on-screen treatment than post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Instead of taking the audience through van Gogh’s life and rise to fame, director Julian Schnabel focuses entirely on the painter’s time in Arles, the French city where he’d eventually be institutionalized.
Schnabel very literally tries to make viewers see the world as Vincent (Willem Dafoe) did, employing the extended POV sequences he used in 2007’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and tinting them in the green and yellows hues that distinguish the real-life artist’s signature works. Willem Dafoe’s performance scored an Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor and the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival.
Al Capone has been a leading or supporting character in over a dozen films and television shows. Still, none of those portrayals can prepare you for Tom Hardy’s drooling, wild-eyed performance in Josh Trank’s reimagining of the legendary Prohibition-era gangster’s final days. Psychologically debilitated by a syphilis infection, this iteration of Capone is confined to a mansion in Palm Island, Florida, and surveilled by FBI agents who suspect his insanity is a ruse he’s concocted to escape serving the rest of a stint in prison for tax evasion. However, viewers are privy to scenes that leave no doubt about the impaired state of the ailing bootlegger’s mental faculties.
Heavily reliant on surrealism, the movie is ultimately about a father—who just happens to be one of American history’s most notorious and violent criminals—trying to reconnect with his son. Trank’s approach produces only mixed results but nevertheless creates an opportunity for similarly minded biopics to perfect his formula. Though “Capone” has one contrivance too many, it’s worth seeing for the lead performance and how Trank expands the genre’s potential.
I’m Not There (2007)
Todd Haynes was undoubtedly ahead of the curve when he made the highly experimental Bob Dylan biopic, “I’m Not There.” The movie is introduced by the caption, “Inspired by the music and the many lives of Bob Dylan.” Indeed, six different actors—Ben Whishaw, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Marcus Carl Franklin—play incarnations of Dylan during various episodes of his life, some of which are fictional.
The film seems to say that by entering collective consciousness, Dylan ceased to exist as an individual and became a myth. Interviews with Andrew Dominik suggest his ambitions were to similarly distill the idea of Marilyn Monroe rather than recreate the actual person. Whereas “Blonde” inadvertently becomes an example of the exploitation it disapproves of—at least according to the film’s many critics—”I’m Not There” is a more incisive, self-aware metacommentary on narratological reinterpretation and representation.
The week of JFK’s death has been the primary or tertiary focus of countless projects. Still, none has recreated this chapter in American history as viscerally as Pablo Larraín’s operatic chamber drama, “Jackie.” The movie uses multiple framing devices and hops back and forth between Jacqueline Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) interview with Time journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup), a televised tour of the White House, and the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. The film is less embellished than some of the other titles on this list—power struggles that unfolded during the transition from John Kennedy’s administration to Lyndon Johnson’s have been extensively studied, as has Bobby Kennedy’s hostile relationship with his brother’s successor—but becomes speculative during scenes of the widowed FLOTUS’ psychological unraveling.
The pastel color-grade and Micah Levi’s string- and flute-heavy score are indispensable to the dark fairytale Larraín wrings from the material. Monroe’s public image is forever intertwined with the Kennedys. Funnily enough, the actor who briefly appears as the 35th president in this movie, Caspar Phillipson, once again plays him in “Blonde” during perhaps its most unsettling scene.
Miles Ahead (2015)
At the beginning of “Miles Ahead,” fictional Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) starts to record a dry, by-the-numbers introduction to his interview with music legend Miles Davis (Don Cheadle). Davis interrupts Braden and tells him to approach the story “with attitude.” This is the film announcing its hyper-realism at the outset, warning its audience that what they’re about to experience is no Wikipedia entry.
Don Cheadle’s directorial debut thrusts a loose characterization of Davis into a fabricated, frenetic action caper/buddy comedy, replete with shootouts and car chases. The film’s creative cuts and scene transitions have a vibrant energy emulative of a jazz (or, as Davis prefers to call it, “social music”) duet. The film was praised upon its release for reinvigorating the genre.
A full-blown musical, Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” is starkly unlike the other recent biopics of pop stars to which it is often compared. The film may not approximate reality, but this dazzling rock opera is definitely how Elton John would tell his own story. The peculiar format allows Taron Egerton and his co-stars to poetically express unspoken regrets and insecurities in a way that would be too melodramatic for a no-frills recreation of the musician’s life.
Fatigue brought on by the then-recently released “Bohemian Rhapsody“–which Fletcher had been enlisted to finish after Bryan Singer’s exit–may have dealt a blow to Egerton’s shot at an Oscar nomination, but “Rocketman” is generally considered the superior and more artistically bold film.
“The Crown” is obviously a dramatization of British history, but it does aspire to a literalism that “Spencer” dispels even before its opening shot with the epigraph, “A fable from a true tragedy.” Like that film, Pablo Larraín’s follow-up to “Jackie” breathes new life into a familiar subject. The movie translates the public perception of Diana into a tense, psychological character study that contains elements of paranoid thrillers and body horror. The confounding experience of watching “Blonde” may leave you curious to see how Larraín would’ve handled this material.
Claire Mathon’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s score deserve enormous credit for helping create the film’s gothically romantic atmosphere. Larraín is currently planning the final entry in what Sun Chronicle critic Katie Walsh has called his “doomed princess trilogy.” Details are still being kept under wraps.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s unorthodox biopic about Steve Jobs was released right on the heels of the much more palatable “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Josh Gad. Kutcher may have nailed the late Apple founder and CEO’s look, but Michael Fassbender, despite lacking any resemblance to Jobs, undoubtedly delivers the more substantive performance. The film is divided into three visually distinct acts, each set on the morning of a product launch.
Sorkin compresses Walter Isaacson’s biography of the iconic entrepreneur into dramatically rich conversations that never happened but nevertheless capture the essence of Jobs’ personality and relationships. The convoluted framework is acknowledged by lines like, “Five minutes before a launch, everyone goes to a bar and gets drunk and tells me what they really think.” While some suspension of disbelief is necessary in order to engage with Sorkin’s inventive screenplay, “Steve Jobs” demands a lot less patience than a movie as existentially ponderous and deliberately nebulous as “Blonde.”
Adam McKay’s “Vice” is the rare example of an experimental biopic that performed exceptionally well with the AMPAS. That could be because of the director’s cachet with Academy voters, the film’s broad satirization of recent history, or some combination of both. Whatever the reason, the Dick Cheney biopic received eight nominations, including one for Best Picture. Christian Bale’s performance as the 46th vice president is perhaps the actor’s most dramatic transformation to date (which is saying a lot, given that he played both Dicky Ecklund in “The Fighter” and Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle“).
The movie features all of McKay’s hallmarks: expansive social critique, fourth-wall breaks, and stylistic veers toward mockumentary filmmaking. There’s also a memorable scene of Bale and Amy Adams, playing Lynne Cheney, becoming actors in a Shakespearean drama—the point being that theatrical exaggeration uncovers essential truths as effectively as it obscures them. Though McKay’s style can be abrasive and, at times, heavy-handed, it does allow him to inhabit dimensions of the subject that a conventional project simply wouldn’t be able to. As they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Do you agree with this list? What are some of your favorite impressionistic biopics? Have you seen “Blonde” yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.