Recently film sources revealed that Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn is set to direct a biopic of James Dean’s all too brief life and his prolific friendship with American photojournalist Dennis Stock. As we eagerly anticipate the announcement regarding who will be cast as the cultural icon, we chart ten criminally under seen and curiously underrated biopics from cinema history.
Where better to begin than the debut feature that marked Corbijn’s transition from photographer to director. In 2007, the filmmaker delved into British pop culture history to provide a touching, pleasantly witty and terrifically performed biopic of troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Shot entirely in black and white, this moving portrait plots the rise of the popular Manchester band, Curtis’ descent into depression before concluding with his devastating untimely suicide at the minor age of twenty three. There’s a saddening similarity between Curtis’ and Dean’s curtailed stardom and this little seen gem will give audience a good clue as to what to expect from Corbijn’s forthcoming James Dean biopic.
Werner Herzog’s compelling war time drama Rescue Dawn is adapted from his own 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which itself is well worth seeing. Herzog’s detailed and thoroughly engaging account of a German-American pilot who was shot down and imprisoned by Pathet Lao sympathisers during the Vietnam War is among his most underrated and under seen films. At the centre of the film is another dramatic body transformation from the shape-shifting Christian Bale, who lost around twenty-five kilos for his starring role as Dieter Dengler, and his efforts are rewarded with an exceptionally accurate performance.
10 Rillington Place
Legendary American director Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place focuses on a haunting dramatisation of the case of British serial killer John Christie and the eventual miscarriage of justice of Tom Evans. Like most biopics the film is carried by the strength of its central performance and Richard Attenborough gives his career best as the sinister and disturbing John Christie. This tremendous biopic is rounded off with a provocative conclusion that is sure to leave a lasting impression.
Where the Buffalo Roam
No film on this list pushes the limits of veracity quite like Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam. This wickedly funny depiction of celebrated gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson’s rise to fame in the seventies is often criticised for an inaccurate portrayal of the acid-soaked reporter, but Bill Murray in the leading role delivers an astonishing performance. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may be the preferred, darker and more accurate depiction of Hunter S Thompson’s life, but Murray comfortably surpasses Johnny Depp ensuring that audiences won’t go wrong with this light-hearted yet enjoyably chaotic romp.
Coal Miner’s Daughter
The biopic subgenre is most frequently focussed on the careers and lives of iconic music talents. The terrific eighties film Coal Miner’s Daughter is a little known biopic of Loretta Lynn; an ambitious Kentucky girl who rose from poverty to become a country and western legnend. From the moment it begins Michael Apted’s film is completely natural and powerfully real. While this is not entirely underrated, considering Sissy Spacek was awarded with the Academy Award for Best Actress that year, this film is sadly under seen.
American Splendor, adapted from Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book series of the same name, is a curious biopic that deftly combines reality and fantasy in an amusing, yet engaging manner. Even for such a surreal film it always remains grounded to the down-to-earth mentality of its source. American Splendor is a brilliantly unique film about an ordinary man, but with extraordinary results.
This immaculately performed experimental film is surely one of the most stylised biopic of all-time. The narrative is structured in a non-linear manner and separated into four main strands: an exploration of the life of Allan Ginsberg, a lushly animated performance of his controversial poem Howl, a deconstruction of said poem and a dramatisation of the resulting court case where Ginsberg was accused of publishing obscene material. While the film’s efforts for innovation never truly match James Franco’s incredible performance, Howl remains a truly watchable and unique biopic.
I’m Not There
Due to the actors involved portraying real, often very public figures there is a demanding pressure that leaves the film’s strength hinging on the performances. Here, for a musical biopic inspired by the life of Bob Dylan, six very different actors present different aspects of Dylan’s life. The performances from Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw are certainly terrific, but unfortunately result in an uneven narrative and inconsistency, but this courageous biopic deserves recognition for attempting something new.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
George Clooney’s directorial debut and one of Charlie Kaufman’s most underrated screenplays; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind explores Chuck Barris’, seventies game show host and original Simon Cowell, dubious claims that he was secretly employed as a hitman by the CIA. Where he’s most frequently expressed his remarkable talents in scene stealing supporting roles, Sam Rockwell headlines this film and brings his expected high energy naturally into the role. However, this film’s biggest strength is cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who later worked on the visually stunning Drive, as he provides a gorgeous vibrancy to this visual feast.
In a similar vein to Nicolas Winding Refn’s tremendous Bronson, Chopper is a visceral retelling of a nation’s famous criminal told from the perspective of the criminal himself. Though the narrative is adapted from the prisoner’s best-selling autobiographies, director Andrew Dominik doesn’t present the life of Mark “Chopper” Read, but the exaggerated, darkly comical person the author presents to the world. The film’s hyper violent sequences and the lead character’s seemingly superhuman strength highlight the emphasised persona Read’s created, as he himself repeats throughout the film, to build his reputation within the prison and across Australia.