Whether doing their own research, using the perspective of those close to their subjects, relying on existing print biographies, or combining elements of all three, biographical filmmakers can take a variety of tacks as they craft cinematic portraits of a person’s life. Their biggest decision, of course, is whether to go the documentary route or create a biopic, with the potential interest in the subject—and available funding—influencing the choice. While the Hollywood treatment of a subject’s life can mean huge box office sales and perhaps a trip down the red carpet at the Academy Awards—think last year’s Hidden Figures—the increasing number of streaming video outlets and their demand for content has opened up new outlets for biographical films.
TBC’s annual—but far from exhaustive—look at biography on film shows that both cable networks and the streaming giants have recently or will offer soon a number of documentaries. In addition, documentaries will appear on the big screen, along with the more high-profile biopics. Here are some of the biographical offerings of the past few months, ones slated for release soon, and films that are still being shot or are in the planning stages.
This spring, James Bond fans got a glimpse into the life of the superspy’s least-famous portrayer, George Lazenby, in Hulu’s Becoming Bond. Lazenby was an auto mechanic and male model who had never acted before becoming Sean Connery’s successor as Agent 007. Variety called the subject featured in the film as “more Austin Powers than James Bond.” Released around the same time was a more serious look at Hollywood subjects. Netflix’s Five Came Back examines the wartime service of five famous directors: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. The three-hour documentary series was written by Mark Harris, who wrote a 2016 book of the same name on the directors and their wartime films.
Cable network Spike TV had two notable biographical releases early in 2017. The six-part mini-series TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, looked at the brief life and death of Browder, who spent several years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island for a minor crime he maintained he did not commit. Browder’s story first received wide attention in a 2014 New Yorker article by Jennifer Gonnerman. In May, Spike TV released a different kind of documentary: I Am Heath Ledger relied heavily on “home movie” footage the late actor shot himself during his career. Also in May, PBS offered lighter fare than the two Spike projects, as American Masters took a look at four distinguished chefs in a series called Chefs Flight. New documentaries on James Beard and Jacques Pepin were paired with repeat presentations of films about Julia Child and Alice Waters.
Lifetime Network’s latest biographical entry was a biopic treatment of the last years of Michael Jackson. Titled Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, it was based on the book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, written by two of his former bodyguards. Navi, a well-known Jackson impersonator, portrayed the King of Pop in the biopic. Lifetime is just one of the networks under the A&E umbrella, which presents the Biography website and broadcasts the long-running series of the same name. The documentary series Biography recently returned after a hiatus, with Jackson as the subject of an episode that ran about the same time as Searching for Neverland.
Moving to the big screen, a biopic of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur came out in June. Titled All Eyez on Me, it features actor Demetrius Shipp Jr. as the late Shakur. In the documentary category, two recent notable biographical films are Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary and Good Fortune. The latter looks at the life of John Paul DeJoria, who made a fortune as co-founder of the Paul Mitchell brand of hair products and later became an environmental activist. Documentary fans had several biographical films to choose from at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. The subjects featured included Winnie Mandela, Latina activist Dolores Huerta, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Reviews from the Globe and Mail of many of the films screened at the festival are available here.
A film featuring a slice of author Stefan Zweig’s life is currently playing across North America. Titled Farewell to Europe, it looks at Zweig’s time in exile before and during World War II. The film, completed in 2016, was Austria’s entry for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Film category. Finally, while not a biographical film, biographers might find the film Obit of interest. This April 2017 release looks at the obituary-writing team at the New York Times, as they try to piece together the details of the recently deceased’s lives. (Thanks to Cathy Curtis for passing along information on the film.)
Along with the biopic version of Tupac Shakur’s life, Biography will present a six-part documentary on the hip-hop artist this fall. Focusing on his murder, the documentary is called Who Killed Tupac? Shakur’s musical rival, the Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace), will be featured in another Biography offering, Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.
A slightly older slice of American cultural history will come to the big screen in September. Battle of the Sexes looks at the famous tennis match between Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone). Also in September, Tom Cruise will star in American Made as Barry Seal, the former commercial pilot who turned to drug running and then became an informant for the DEA. Due out this fall, but with no release date set, is The Silent Man, with Liam Neeson playing Mark Felt, Watergate’s Deep Throat. Also coming this fall, is Rebel in the Rye, with Nicholas Hoult playing J. D. Salinger, covering his pre-Catcher in the Rye years until the early 1960s. Another literary biopic coming this year, though with less-famous subjects, is The Professor and the Madman. Based on the book of the same title by Simon Winchester, it features Mel Gibson and Sean Penn as the two men behind the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Finally, for the 2017 big-screen holiday season, look for The Greatest Showman, a musical with Hugh Jackman playing P. T. Barnum. It has songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Oscar for their songs in last year’s La La Land.
Turning to feature documentaries, a film about Prince called Prince: R U Listening? is due out before the end of the year. Directed by Michael Kirk, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has often appeared on PBS’s Frontline, the movie will feature interviews with other prominent musicians including Mick Jagger and Bono. A second film about the music star, Prince: Pop Life, is also in the works. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen will be the subject of two upcoming movies: a documentary slated for release this year and a biopic due out next year. Jack O’Connell will play the title role in the biopic, which is based on Andrew Wilson’s 2015 biography, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath The Skin.
Announced Or In Development
Keeping in mind that movie deals are often delayed or fall through completely, here are some of the biographical films recently announced or just getting off the ground. Filming is underway for a biopic about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, with Al Pacino in the lead role. The movie, for HBO, was first announced in 2012 but production stopped in 2014. Joe Posnanski’s biography, Paterno, served as a source for the original script. A long-discussed biopic of Queen singer Freddie Mercury seems to be coming together, with Rami Malek, star of TV’s Mr. Robot, slated to play Mercury. Jared Leto will play Andy Warhol in an upcoming film. Work is already underway on White Crow, a movie about Rudolph Nureyev, with Ralph Fiennes as director and starring in the film as the dancer’s teacher.
In addition, The Catcher Was a Spy, based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography of the same name, was shot this year in the Czech Republic. In this film, Paul Rudd stars as Moe Berg, the Major League catcher who worked for the OSS during World War II. Famed socialite, novelist, and wife of F. Scott, Zelda Fitzgerald, is the subject of two upcoming biopics, with Scarlet Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence each taking a turn at playing her. An October 2018 release date has been set for First Man, a film about Neil Armstrong based on the biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The movie once again teams up Ryan Gosling (in the title role) with director Damien Chazelle; the two worked together on La La Land.
Films with release dates that are farther in the future include an adaptation of Shane White’s biography, Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire. Don Cheadle, who has acquired the rights to the book, previously starred in and directed a biopic of Miles Davis. Another biography will serve as source material for an upcoming move: Sonia Purnell’s forthcoming book, A Woman of No Importance, about Virginia Hall, a World War II spy. Daisy Ridley of Star Wars: The Last Jedi will play Hall. Meanwhile, Bruce Lee’s family is closely involved in a planned biopic on the famed martial artist and actor’s life, and Octavia Spencer wants to produce and star in a mini-series based on A’Lelia Bundles’ On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. The filmmaker/actor Tyler Perry will play African American director Oscar Micheaux in a biopic being made for HBO. The film is based on Patrick McGilligan’s biography Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. Lastly, the events that shaped J. R. R. Tolkien before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the subject of Middle Earth, a film project from the producers of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.