When presenting a story about a famous person on film, which is better: a scripted dramatic film starring professional actors or a documentary film featuring actual footage of the person with comments from friends, family and other associates?
This question comes to mind after seeing films during the last year about Freddie Mercury, David Crosby, Miles Davis, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Garland. Also, the Ken Burns PBS series about country music caused me to recall dramatic movies about Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, among others.
My examples listed here are music stars but the question also applies also to films about well-known individuals in other walks of life. It’s my belief that each style (dramatic or documentary) has its own virtues.
In a dramatic telling of a person’s life story or, as with the Judy Garland movie, a brief period of a person’s life, the filmmaker has the opportunity to massage the facts to present a coherent narrative with elements of conflict, romance and the ups and downs of life. Timelines can be condensed or expanded. Events that may have seemed inconsequential at the time can be presented as key turning points.
In a documentary film, the filmmaker also has the ability to shape the content that makes it to the screen, but he or she is working with actual events and real people. Is a documentary biographical film the complete and unvarnished truth? No. It is a version of the truth. But with archival footage and present day commentary, it has a level of authenticity. The best documentaries, I believe, have a point of view and may not present all sides of a story.
A successful biography type film, be it dramatic or doc, adds to our understanding of an individual and our appreciation for that person’s challenges and accomplishments.
Of course, a key consideration is money. Production costs for Bohemian Rhapsody are estimated on imdb.com at $52 million. The film’s worldwide gross is nearly one billion dollars. Documentary costs or revenues are never anywhere close to those numbers. For that reason, producers may be more quickly willing to risk an investment on a documentary about a person such as Linda Ronstadt whereas a dramatic telling of her life/career story would be a much riskier proposition.
With both styles of storytelling, there will always be complaints that a real life event was depicted incorrectly or that certain events or people are totally omitted. But, hey, you can’t please everybody.