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What Biopics Like "Elvis" Do (And Don't) Tell Us About Celebrities

With "Elvis" entering theaters and a dozen more biopics being announced for future moviegoers, it's time to do a bit of reflecting on how biopics support, embellish, and sometimes erase history.

Austin Butler sitting playing the piano portraying Elvis on the film "Elvis."
Photo: Elvis Film

By definition, a biopic is a movie that dramatizes the life of a (usually famous) person. These films have become increasingly popular in the last few decades, covering political figures, tech geniuses, con men, and music superstars. While it can certainly be hard to depict a person's life in just two and a half hours, biopics often depict either the good or bad of a person. For example, the 1991 film "The Doors" focuses heavily on Jim Morrison's alcohol and drug abuse which his bandmates claim diminishes how sensitive the leading man truly was. Sometimes this strategy can go the other way too. Although "The Wolf of Wall Street" portrays Jordan Belfort's fraud and sex-and-drugs-filled lifestyle, the film mostly romanticizes his life and the man himself.

This problem has been especially relevant when it comes to "Elvis." Many young people on Tik Tok have pointed out that Elvis Presley was far from unproblematic and wonder why a film would be made to only praise him. The King of Rock and Roll has been criticized for his relationship with Priscilla Wagner, who was 14 when they first met, and also for his appropriation and theft of songs originally written by African American artists.

"Elvis" isn't the only film that sugarcoats the dark sides of famous figures. Although "The Greatest Showman" doesn't fit perfectly into the biopic category, it does depict P.T. Barnum, the founder of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. While the film portrays him as loving and kind, the real man consistently exploited and abused his workers. Another example is the 2019 film "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" which has been criticized for portraying the serial killer Ted Bundy in a flattering light as a handsome and cunning man.

Hugh Jackman in "The Greatest Showman"
Photo: The Greatest Showman

So, the question we are left with is do biopics have the responsibility to tell the whole truth?

Many would say no; film is an art form and biopics at their core are stories with angles and filters on them. And more than that, people are not just their good decisions or bad decisions. However, as Gen Z (and society at large) becomes more politically active and outspoken about social issues, are we willing to let these gaps in storytelling slide? We have to wonder if it is irresponsible to praise celebrities without acknowledging their downfalls and if biopics are just another way to bury history.

In the end, no one person can decide for the majority. So, whether you decide to see "Elvis" or not, it is good to do your research and make your own evaluations. And of course, don't forget that some great biopics do still exist (cough, "Rocketman", cough)!


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