How to Build a Better Biopic
Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis was one of my favorite movies to come out in 2022. As a maximalist director, Luhrmann is known for big sound, bright lights, and perpetually moving cameras—and Elvis is no exception to his style. I’ve watched the film three times now, and I don’t know if there’s any better way to describe the film other than energizing. It’s somehow too much and just right. It’s controlled, but completely chaotic. The movie feels like a rollercoaster ride, continuously pumping the audience with adrenaline until the moment the title screen appears and the credits roll. It truly is a fun film, and I believe Baz Luhrmann did a fantastic job of portraying the magnitude of Elvis and his fame during his life. Unfortunately though, I’m not sure it accomplishes much more than that.
For a biopic, I find that, despite having watched the film multiple times, I know very little about Elvis as a person. Instead, I’ve become especially aware of his impact on others. I don’t think this is necessarily a fault—as I’ve made abundantly clear, I am a fan of this film. That said, the direction Luhrmann and his co-writers decided to tell this story is worth noting. By definition, a biopic is “a movie dramatizing the life of a particular person, typically a public or historical figure.” As much as we’d like to believe that these films will provide audiences with accurate depictions of their subjects’ lives, they aren’t documentaries, and they aren’t biographies. Ultimately, a biopic will seek to entertain before it educates, which isn’t a bad quality, but something to take into consideration when piecing together the story of an individual’s life. Elvis is a very entertaining movie, but aside from his drug abuse, and a brief mention of his infidelity, the film ignores many of the unsavory details of Elvis’s life in order to tell the story the producers wanted to tell. As a result, whether intentional or not, the film can easily be interpreted as idolizing Elvis as a person rather than a study of his legacy. Notably, the film doesn’t address many of the issues presented in his marriage to Priscilla Presley.
In 1959, during his military service in Germany, Elvis Presley met Priscilla Beaulieu when he was 24 and she was 14. The couple eloped 8 years later in 1967, and their six-year-long marriage was characterized by manipulation, physical abuse, and infidelity. When Priscilla published her biography Elvis and Me in 1985, it became painfully clear to the public just how dysfunctional their relationship was. Reflecting on Elvis, I can’t imagine where this aspect of Elvis’s life would fit into the story. Despite being his wife, in Luhrmann’s tale, Priscilla takes up very little of the movie’s runtime. The details of their first meeting are vague, their age difference is not addressed, and while they do show the moment Priscilla decides to leave Elvis, they don’t explain why. Again, these details don’t serve the story of Elvis. It feels callous to put it that way because real people were involved, but as I said before, these films are made to entertain. There’s no way to explore all the nuances of a person’s life in the amount of time an audience is willing to sit in a theater. A filmmaker must take liberties. Having said that, as much as I enjoy Elvis, I find that the film struggles to fully explore any nuances. An audience member would know that Elvis lived a big life, and not much else.
Last week, I saw my very first Sophia Coppola film: Priscilla. Considering this movie was released only a year after Elvis, it’s difficult not to see this film as a sort of response. But now having seen the film, I’m not sure if that’s quite the case. Aside from being immense in its own right, Elvis made quite the impact last year. Alongside the vast amount of criticism lead Austin Butler received for his method acting, Elvis was nominated for eight academy awards, including Best Picture. In order to combat a film of that magnitude, Priscilla would have to be just as, if not more, massive. Instead, Coppola’s film is slow, quiet, and calculated. It feels silly now that I expected these films to be anything alike. Despite their commonalities, they portray two completely different stories. Whereas Luhrmann’s film feels like it has very little to do with Elvis as a person, Priscilla is completely dependent on its protagonist. Based on Priscilla’s own novel, Coppola’s story focuses on the life of an individual, rather than the impact of an idol.
It’s a great film, and I’d encourage anyone to watch it while it’s still in theaters. Like Elvis, it’s not perfect, but it accomplishes something I don’t believe Elvis is capable of. Coppola was able to humanize Priscilla in a way that did not come across in Elvis. It portrayed who she was in a way that was purposefully personal. Baz Luhrmann succeeded in making Elvis seem larger than life, and because of that, there’s going to be a disconnect between him and the audience. Elvis is nothing like us, and that’s what makes him so interesting. In film, intention is everything. While both of these movies fall into the same genre, these two filmmakers made films that are totally separate from one another, because they both had distinct stories they wanted to tell. This makes them difficult to compare. I’d like to revisit what a biopic is supposed to be. In tandem with the definition I provided earlier, a biopic is a type of film that is simply supposed to tell the story of someone’s life. More often than not, Elvis feels like a scrapbook or a “best of” DVD. It does a great job of recreating the most notable part of Elvis Presley’s life, but because so many of the little details of who he was aren’t there, it doesn’t feel like it’s telling the story of a person. Rather, it feels like it’s telling the story of a character. Priscilla, meanwhile, is unequivocally about her. By the end of the movie, we as audience members know her history, and we understand Priscilla’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles. By the time the credits roll, we feel as if we’ve truly gotten to know someone, and for a biopic, that’s all you can really ask for. In less than two hours, Sophia Coppola compelled us to care, and because of that, I do believe that Priscilla is the better biopic.