Knowing the Stars: the Best of Pop Culture Biopics

Danielle Ryan

It’s only June, but 2016 has been a rough year with regards to the deaths of pop culture titans. From January onward, we’ve lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Fry, Dave Mirra, Garry Shandling, Merle Haggard, Chyna, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and dozens of other stars. Each death feels as if a part of the cultural landscape has dissipated, their contributions to movies, television, sports, and music overshadowed by the sadness of their passing. One way to understand these stars a little better and numb their loss is to watch a biopic about their lives. Sometimes biopics are made well before the subject’s death, as is the case with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ali, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, though Hunter S. Thompson and Ali have since passed on.

Here are a selection of the Fandom crew’s favorite pop-culture biopics, the stories about stars that really made us think, laugh, cry, or find understanding. There are sure to be more to come in the next few years, telling the tales of the stars we’ve lost.

Ed Wood


There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than movies about itself. However, Ed Wood marks an interesting departure from the typically self-congratulatory and self-deprecating Tinseltown biopics you’re used to. It’s the story of “the worst director of all time,” and the production of three of his films: Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Director Tim Burton latched on to the idea of a relentlessly positive creator whose enthusiasm blinds him to his own ineptitude.

Johnny Depp plays the upbeat weirdo director and it’s a career highlight. His permanent smile and passion for moviemaking is as infectious as it is a delight to watch. But the film also becomes a biopic about another important film figure, Bela Lugosi. Martin Landau plays the once and future Dracula to pitch perfection, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of the silver screen legend. It’s a role that is equal parts humorous and heart-wrenching and acts as an appropriate ode to an actor who was unceremoniously discarded by an industry he helped solidify.

The movie embraces the outcasts and oddballs that live on the fringes of society, and it pays tribute to the kind of “do it yourself” spirit that you can only find from such individuals. Not to mention that the film is one of the best black and white pictures of the modern age, making it a real treat for cinephiles. If you have even a passing interest in the world of filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to see Ed Wood. It’s an endearing testament to those who follow their dreams, even if those dreams turn out to be major stinkers. [Drew Diestch]

Walk the Line

Walk the Line

In a world where Schadenfreude rules the headlines, it is a refreshing change of pace to watch a wreck of a man piece himself together again. In Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix rides the baritone drawl of Johnny Cash into a debauched spectacle of drugs, booze, and rockabilly twang that borders on farcical excess before leveling out into a moving love story and a powerful family drama. At its heart, the film might well be best summarized of a story of reconciliation between a father and a son. Cash’s father, Ray, has never forgiven Johnny for surviving when his older son died in a tragic accident. Robert Patrick, as the elder Cash, plays the hard, inscrutable picture of a disapproving father with such fierceness, it’s almost more terrifying than that time he played a man made of liquid metal who could cut semi-trucks in half. Joaquin Phoenix at every turn plays Cash as a man who is desperate to please his father. He lives out the survivor’s guilt so acutely that it’s impossible not to wonder if the loss of his own brother, River, played heavily into his performance. It is excruciating, and when Cash finally wins a modicum of his father’s approval, it’s enough to make you want to shout.

Even with all the family drama, the film would be nothing without the excellent music. Joaquin Phoenix apes the iconic vocal style of Johnny Cash with just enough of a personal flair to give this Cash a life of his own. Reese Witherspoon brings the twangy country grace of a girl idol to her role, playing June Carter Cash as a world-wise Kacey Musgraves prototype that is a perfect foil to Phoenix’s brooding darkness. The transformation of their lopsided friendship into an enduring romance that will define the artistic careers and lives of the man and woman within it shines on screen. By the time Phoenix assumes the mantle of the Man In Black, we see a portrait of a man who propels himself through despair on the reverberating strings of an acoustic guitar. [Robert Mitchell] 



I missed Ali when it came out. It was well received, but not widely loved. Now, in our grief after Muhammad Ali’s death, felt like the perfect time for a first watch.

I didn’t have many expectations going in, and I find myself pleasantly surprised. Actually, that’s too soft. I think this flick is great, and perhaps it was ahead of its time. Roger Ebert described it as “more in the tone of a eulogy than a celebration”, and I can see why. The film’s energy is in Michael Mann’s direction, which propels this unconventionally structured film through its more stylized moments. This isn’t the crowd-pleasing film about the crowd-pleasing champ. The first 10 minutes are a strange introduction, with Mann inter-cutting disparate scenes of a Sam Cooke performance, a young Cassius Clay watching his father paint, and an adult Ali training. It borders on impressionism, and I can see it being a high bar to clear, especially when the film cuts between HD video (which didn’t exactly look cinematic in 2000) and rich celluloid.

Then the film barrels into a fifteen-minute boxing match between Ali and Sonny Liston, where Will Smith shows just how good he is. Smith delivers lines with Ali’s trademark inflection and rhythm, but in his quieter moments he embodies Ali’s energy and physicality in a way that is fascinating to watch.

Michael Mann’s Ali does not evoke a feeling of triumph, but the film is still a resounding success. It isn’t a Rocky movie starring an Ali impersonator. It’s full of bravura style and firm substance. It isn’t fun. But Ali is a strong film in Mann’s filmography, it’s perfectly cast, and there’s no time like right now to see it. [Travis Newton]

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a twisted funhouse of a movie. Terry Gilliam’s mad attempt at capturing a pivotal moment in the life of lunatic gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is a fever dream laced with more illegal narcotics than the human body should be able to feasibly withstand. The film is presented through a warped lens jaded by drug-fueled mania and hallucinations and it’s almost baffling that Gilliam was able to make the whole project feel somewhat coherent at all. Johnny Depp dove deep into method acting for his role as Thompson, and the months of living with the notorious author may have helped him craft one of the best performances of his career.

Gilliam paints a disturbing picture of the events found between the pages of Fear and Loathing, and if we are to believe that Hunter Thompson perceived anything similar to what we see on screen, it’s no wonder the writer was so notable for his extreme public behavior and antics. Depp and Benicio del Toro bounce off each other with a rabid energy that propels the story forward like a speed freak spiraling into a massive burnout. The visuals are unsettling and bizarre throughout the film and the cult status of the picture has grown a life of its own by being misinterpreted by eager stoners and counterculture bandwagoners. There’s no way anyone could disprove the events of the narrative aside from fact checking police reports, hotel receipts and messages sent from the motorcycle race back to Rolling Stone. The truth of this biopic is in the eye of the beholder and no one other than Hunter S. Thompson could have lived through these events. It’s one hell of a trip. [Andrew Hawkins]

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is based on the memoir of its subject, game show host and possible CIA-hitman Chuck Barris. Barris, best known for creating television hits like The Dating GameThe Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show (which he also hosted), is brought to manic life by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell absolutely nails the role, both oozing charisma and reeking of paranoia. He’s exactly what you’d picture the host of The Gong Show being like if he actually killed people for the CIA. (The CIA has repeatedly denied Barris’ claims that he worked for them, though that’s kind of a thing they do anyway.)

The film is a weird brew. George Clooney’s directorial debut, the script was penned by surrealist Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and bounces between traditional biopic style and glimpses into Barris’ psyche. The filmmakers use the medium to its fullest potential, with sleight-of-hand tricks to make the viewer consider the possibilities of Barris’ claims. When the credits roll, it’s almost impossible to decide whether Barris ever worked as a hitman or if it’s all part of his persona, another amazing story told by a world-class showman.

A number of the film’s stars worked for scale as a favor to Clooney, and both Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts shine opposite Rockwell. Matt Damon and Brad Pitt cameo, and young Barris is even played by young Michael Cera. It’s a who’s-who of Hollywood, making a film about Hollywood that’s also kind of an acid-trip fever dream. There’s nothing quite like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, with its closest cinematic relative being Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a biopic with a (probably) unreliable narrator, completely sold by Sam Rockwell’s tremendous performance and a stellar supporting cast. It’s weird, it’s occasionally uncomfortable, but it’s a fine piece of filmmaking. [Danielle Ryan] 

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

It’s a toss-up whether the 2015 film Steve Jobs, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin,  even belongs on a list of biopics. While dealing with characters who have the same names of the real people involved, it is a highly fictionalized account of three crucial product launches in Job’s professional life: the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, the launch of the NeXT computer in 1988, and the introduction of the iMac in 1998. This is the framework of the film, but the segments are merely vessels into with are poured wide swaths of Job’s professional and personal life, presented as conversations between the critical players: his daughter Lisa, whom he originally refuses to acknowledge parentage of;  fellow Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who insists Jobs recognize the importance of the Apple II even as Jobs strives to move beyond the foundational computer; and John Sculley, who was made CEO of Apple by Jobs and eventually helped force him from the company.

Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Jobs, and most of the conversations didn’t happen that way, at those particular times. It might have the hard facts wrong, but it does capture perfectly what people were feeling at the time, and why they did what they did. It’s the why that’s most important to the film, not the ‘what’ or ‘where’. Like its subject matter, Steve Jobs in an enigma, prone to blatant exaggeration of the facts at hand. It is also a compelling story about the man behind the name. [William Hunter]

I’m Not There

The very idea of a biopic about legendary singer/songwriter Bob Dylan seems like a fool’s errand. Dylan’s purposefully enigmatic nature makes any straightforward adaptation of his life an impossibility. Thankfully, director Todd Haynes was well aware of this and approached Dylan’s life in the same creative and mythical manner that the musician himself has exuded throughout his entire career.

Six different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) portray six characters that are inspired by different stages/personas of Dylan’s life. Using quotes from numerous incidents in Dylan’s career, lyrics from his songs, and fictionalizing memorable events from his life, I’m Not There creates a manic pastiche of an ever-changing figure that is magically disorienting. It’s an experimental take on the typical biopic that pays off like gangbusters. Granted, it’s definitely a film for the Dylan faithful and never attempts to hold the audience’s hand, but that’s an appropriate sentiment in relation to the film’s subject. Bob Dylan has always been a divisive and sometimes impenetrable cultural icon, and this cinematic take on his tumultuous and constantly shifting existence reflects that abrasiveness.

Though it might seem off-putting to the uninitiated, it’s a fantastic (and fantastical) glimpse into one of America’s most influential musical figures. If nothing else, it will make you curious about Dylan and that’s a fine way to start a relationship with the man and his music. Because Bob Dylan is certainly curious. [Drew Diestch]

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress award for Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it’s hard not to see why. She embodies Loretta Lynn, married off during puberty to a family friend and expected to start making babies and keeping house. Her marriage to her husband Doolittle (portrayed with gusto by Tommy Lee Jones) was rocky, and he even once allegedly left her during the birth of one of their six children. In the film, Doolittle is prone to violence and roughness, but he sees the light that shines in young Loretta and encourages it. He buys her a guitar for their anniversary, and the then-mother-of-four begins to write her own music. She starts at tiny honky-tonks and works her way up, eventually becoming a country music legend.

Fans who watch video of Spacek and Lynn side-by-side can see the amount of work the young actress put into her role. She sang all of her songs live, accompanied Lynn on tour to learn her mannerisms, and had Lynn available to ask questions. There are stories about Doolittle and Tommy Lee Jones, who apparently didn’t get along at the start of shooting but became friends after Tommy Lee (allegedly) got drunk and drove around town in a rented Jeep. The Lynns’ had a hand in the film without allowing concerns for vanity shine through: Doolittle is often an unruly cur, especially on their wedding night, and they live in less-than-glamorous poverty for a large portion of the movie. It’s a country music biopic for the ages, and one that shows the rise of a star who had to fight for every bit of her fame in a time and place where women were expected to stay barefoot and pregnant. [Danielle Ryan]

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story


From the first wet slap of Jason Scott Lee’s fist hitting the face of a drunken British sailor at a party in Hong Kong, you know you’re in for something special with Dragon. The film isn’t just a biopic, it’s a fantastically choreographed homage to the kind of madcap martial arts action films that made Bruce Lee into a legend. Jason Scott Lee channels the manic intensity and swagger that made Bruce endearing and terrifying to behold. The fight sequences make this movie truly a worthy watch. Early in the film, after the muscular, handsome Bruce seduces the daughter of a cook at the restaurant where he works, he battles the entire kitchen staff in the alley behind the kitchen. It has the perfect blend of martial arts cool and slapstick braggadocio. More importantly, the film challenges the patently racist culture of America in the 60s. An added joy is to watch Bruce and Linda overcome barriers on an interpersonal and societal level to shape their marriage into something enduring.

Bruce is shown as a sexy, masculine, intelligent man in stark contrast to the bucktoothed, simpering caricatures of Asians that were in vogue at the time.

In the best scene in the film, Bruce surprises the director with improvised choreography on the set of The Green Hornet so masterful it leaves the entire crew in awe. Bruce had the drive and talent to challenge assumptions and build the international success of a new philosophy of martial arts. Bruce’s journey to stardom is supplemented by fantastic imagery. At times he battles an armored demon in dream-like sequences that could symbolize the mysterious illness to which he eventually succumbed lurking below the surface. The film is the retelling of a hero’s deeds in a way fitting of the genre its subject came to dominate, if only for a short time. [Robert Mitchell]

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Tina and Ike

From the director of Poltergeist 2 (yep, really) comes one of the most acclaimed biopics of the nineties. Based on Tina Turner’s memoir I, Tina, the film stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike Turner. The film centers around Tina and Ike’s tumultuous abusive relationship and Tina’s road to stardom. The film brings the best out of Bassett and Fishburne, who were both nominated for Oscars for this film.

Angela Bassett, simply put, is killin’ it here. She’s just about perfect for the role. It also helps that every musical sequence is a total showstopper. And though he’s clearly not the best at mime-playing the guitar, Fishburne sings all his parts. When he isn’t singing, he switches between a manic, fast-talking menace and a quiet intimidation. Both are equally disconcerting to watch.

Though its structure hews closely to contemporary musician biopics, the film’s R rating, tone, and shocking depiction of domestic violence give the film a unique, raw identity. I’m not sure I’d consider it an absolute classic or a must-watch, but it’s full of damn fine acting and impressive production value. [Travis Newton]

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN,, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.
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