Illustration by Nick Wanserski

The problem with biopics is that people’s lives don’t easily reduce to 120 minutes of film. While it’s not impossible for a “cradle to grave” biopic to work, it’s exceedingly difficult. That’s why some successful biopics have focused on a smaller part of their subjects’ lives. The biopic Steve Jobs—released this week—tells the story of the mercurial Apple co-founder around three important product launches. Here are some other short parts of important lives that deserve the cinematic treatment.

1. Bob Dylan goes electric, 1965-66

If ’60s music has an equivalent to Washington crossing the Delaware, it’s the moment when Bob Dylan went electric. Equal parts history and myth, it’s a watershed moment when something new and world-changing was forged. Of course, that “moment” started in July 1965, when Dylan shocked and angered the Newport Folk Festival audience by playing three songs on electric guitar with a full band, and continued through a contentious tour that ended when the singer nearly died in a motorcycle accident in July 1966. We’ve seen the postmodern approach to Dylan, but this is a story with enough heft to be told straight: fans who felt betrayed, a young Dylan struggling with audience expectations, and his certainty that the music getting booed every night was important enough to raise the ire of his most devoted followers. He had to repeatedly convince backup band The Hawks (who would later strike out on their own as The Band) not to quit, and cycled through numerous drugs to deal with the stress and fast pace of the tour. Amidst the whirlwind, Dylan managed to get married, record two of the best albums ever made, and star in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back. As I’m Not There tacitly acknowledges, it’s impossible to capture Dylan’s entire life and career in one movie. But this pivotal, intensely creative two years might tell his story better than any full-on biopic ever could. [Mike Vago]


2. Hattie McDaniel makes Gone With The Wind, 1939-40

When Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Academy Award, she did so while sitting at a segregated table set up for her and her date. That image alone offers a fascinating insight into the complicated reality of Hollywood racism. McDaniel’s star-making performance as Mammy in Gone With The Wind allowed her to break down racial barriers at the Oscars even as the role itself required her to romanticize the slave system and perpetuate stereotypes about black women. McDaniel’s willingness to work within the racist Hollywood system to land high-profile roles makes her a simultaneously inspiring and tragic figure, and a biopic about her experiences on Gone With The Wind—including a scene in which she’s forbidden from attending her own premiere in Atlanta—could zoom in on the human experience of moral compromise. [Caroline Siede]

3. The Smiths, 1982-87

The saga of Morrissey and Marr continues to fascinate, nearly 30 years after The Smiths split amid acrimony and creative differences. Naturally, a Behind The Music-style biopic about how they reached that point would be perfect. From the band’s initial creative collaborations and explosive rise to fame, to the hysteria that surrounded their live shows and Morrissey’s cult of personality, and then to the eventual breakdown of the band’s relationships, the story of The Smiths has enough drama, hubris, and near-misses to make it an utterly compelling subject. [Annie Zaleski]


4. Madonna Ciccone becomes Madonna, 1978-83

Before Madonna was Madonna, she was a small-town girl from Michigan who dreamed of being a professional dancer—and knew she had to leave the Rust Belt for the bright lights of New York if she wanted to be a star. But unlike other leaving home/coming-of-age stories, Madonna’s journey from 1978 to 1983 has no shortage of intrigue: There’s the backdrop of gritty New York, her detours into nude modeling and a sojourn in France, her switch to music and time in the city’s fertile club scene, and, finally, the vindication of a record deal and a debut album. It doesn’t get much more dramatic—or inspiring—than this, really. [Annie Zaleski]

5. Richard Hell and CBGB, 1972-77

For all the recognition that the mid-’70s CBGB scene has as the heart of the American punk movement, it has yet to inspire a successful motion picture. (The dismal 2013 attempt is best forgotten.) If it needs a focus, perhaps Richard Hell might serve? Widely credited with helping create the punk aesthetic, Hell also played a pivotal role in some CBGB stalwarts: Television, which he co-founded with Tom Verlaine before leaving after a dispute over creative control; The Heartbreakers, his band with Johnny Thunders; and Richard Hell And The Voidoids, who released an essential album of the scene, Blank Generation. Toss in roles for other CBGB regulars like Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie—all of whom had connections to Hell—and you’ve got a slice of American cultural history with a huge personality at its center. [Rowan Kaiser]


6. Stephen King’s prolific, addicted run, mid-’70s to late ’80s

Dramatizing the life of a writer poses certain problems, the biggest being that writing is an almost entirely internal process. While Stephen King has written some of the most terrifying and thrilling fiction of the past half-century, a movie of him typing really intensely wouldn’t do much for anyone. But King nearly drinking and drugging himself to death? That could work. As he discusses in On Writing, King spent most of the first part of his career struggling with an addiction to alcohol and cocaine, a bad situation that could make for a terrific movie. The arc of meteoric success set against personal trauma is a familiar one, and a filmmaker could use the literal beasts King has created over the years to illustrate the figurative ones he was battling. Show him running away from Annie Wilkes, fighting off Cujo, and even, in his darkest moments, turning into a deranged Jack Torrance, before finally managing to get sober with the help of his family and friends. It might be corny as hell, but it wouldn’t be boring. [Zack Handlen]

7. Sally Ride answers an ad, becomes an icon, 1978-83

The Right Stuff got a ton of mileage out of juxtaposing the public professionalism of the original Mercury 7 astronauts with their imperfect personal lives, and a biopic about Sally Ride would make the perfect companion to that film. After earning her Ph.D. in physics, Ride answered a NASA newspaper ad calling for diverse candidates to apply to the space program. She joined NASA in 1978 and, five years later, became the first American woman to travel to space—22 years after Alan Shepard completed the country’s first manned space flight. Intensely private, Ride kept her romantic relationships with women a secret, lest they ruin her chances of going into space. (NASA later tried to rule being gay a “psychiatrically disqualifying condition” for astronauts.) She also regularly fielded ridiculous questions from the press like, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” The script would have to include a scene where a NASA engineer asks Ride if 100 tampons would be enough for her weeklong trip to space, only to have her deadpan, “That would not be the right number.” [Caroline Siede]


8. Dave Chappelle disappears, April-June 2005

In April 2005, Dave Chappelle had every reason to feel like he was on top of the world. His Comedy Central series, Chappelle’s Show, was an enormous critical and commercial success, he had just signed a $50 million deal with the network, and production on season three was underway. Instead, the comedian disappeared from sight, abandoning production and running off to South Africa without explanation. The pressures that must have led up to Chappelle’s departure would make for a fascinating story, not only as an exploration into the psyche of what was at the time one of America’s most astute and gifted comedic minds, but also a compelling look at the way the country’s messy racial politics and popular culture soured his experience working on his own show. [Alex McCown]

9. Rivers Cuomo goes to Harvard, 1995

One of the lamest conventions of the musical biopic genre is the eureka moment, mostly because such scenes—which depict the exact second an artist gained the idea for a song—usually feel laughably speculative. Yet there’s little need to speculate about the origins of Pinkerton, Weezer’s once-maligned, now-beloved sophomore flop, because frontman Rivers Cuomo has been forthright about the autobiographical inspiration for the tunes. He wrote many of them in the autumn of 1995, when he put his hit band on hiatus to attend classes at Harvard. This first semester was, by his own account, a pretty miserable time, and by the following summer, when Cuomo reconvened with his bandmates for the final Pinkerton recording session, he had plenty of painfully personal new experiences to set to power chords. Just imagine a Weezer biopic about this lonely chapter in the singer’s life—one that could cut from Cuomo failing to approach a campus crush to his recording “El Scorcho,” or from him mooning over a Japanese pen pal to his playing “Across The Sea” to a crowd expecting more “Buddy Holly,” less sad jams. It’d be the most gloriously awkward, melancholy rock ’n’ roll movie ever—and almost certainly better than DeTour, the pilot inspired by Cuomo’s college experience that Fox didn’t pick up. [A.A. Dowd]


10. Tarsem Singh sneaks around to make his passion project, 2000-06

The recent filmmaking adventures of Tarsem Singh aren’t worth a behind-the-scenes chronicle—Immortals and Mirror Mirror are bland spectacles without strong plots, and the recent Self/less even dispensed with the spectacle. But Tarsem’s one real labor of filmmaking love, 2006’s self-produced fantasy The Fall, has a backstory as compelling as its screen story. It’s the kind of inspired holy-fool project that filmmakers love to chronicle after the fact, to remind themselves what it feels like to be madly inspired and endlessly ambitious. Tarsem spent years planning his film, scouting and shooting scenes around the world on the sly during his commercial shoots. He let a 5-year-old co-write key scenes, and relied on her improv skills for the core of the movie. And to make her more convincing, he told the cast and crew that actor Lee Pace was an actual paraplegic, and confined him to a wheelchair on set for the 12-week shoot. A biopic focused specifically on Tarsem’s devotion to this one movie—how it plays into his family history, and all the chicanery he used to make it happen—would be an unbeatable art-about-art story. And hey, it might bring the film itself to a wider audience. [Tasha Robinson]

11. Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

In 1964, the president of the United States felt so threatened by a poor, middle-aged black woman from Mississippi that he called a bullshit press conference to keep her off of television. That’s the story of Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, which was hosting a lily-white delegation from Mississippi that opposed civil rights. Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party aimed to unseat them, and she was invited to testify on TV about the problems she faced. Johnson was struggling to keep Southern voters from supporting his opponent, Barry Goldwater, so he called a pointless press conference to keep Hamer’s testimony off TV. (He wasn’t successful.) The story has an irresistible combination of an unexpected hero thrust into political intrigue, famous black activists (Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis), powerful Democratic leaders (LBJ, Bobby Kennedy), and a betrayal of civil rights ideals for short-sighted party politics. But at its core, it’s simple: A humble woman took on the president in the court of public opinion and, at worst, fought to a draw. [Rowan Kaiser]


12. W.B. Yeats in the Golden Dawn, 1899-1901

Secret societies! Occult rituals! Coups d’etats! Poetry! Before he was world-famous for his works, a young W.B. Yeats was a member of the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, a secret occult society in Victorian England. Around the dawn of the 20th century, the Golden Dawn fractured under the influence of the famously abrasive occultist Aleistar Crowley, and Yeats attempted to form a splinter group. The secretive nature of the occult group and lack of detail make it ideal for, shall we say, artistic interpretation. Crowley’s outsize personality makes him a perfect villain, while Yeats, as one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, makes for a potentially excellent protagonist. [Rowan Kaiser]

13. Bob Newhart goes from company man to superstar, 1956-72

Before he became a TV and comedy icon, Bob Newhart was an accountant, albeit one who dreamed of being a comedian. To pass the time in their boring office jobs, he and a friend would call each other as characters. After his friend moved, Newhart kept writing bits where the audience would only hear his half of the conversation. It became Newhart’s signature, and by using it on his first comedy album, 1960’s The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart, he won three Grammys and become a superstar. A film charting Newhart’s course from office drone to top-selling comedy act to the start of his influential and successful first TV show in 1972 could be fascinating, especially as it looks into show business at the time. And a scene showing Frank Sinatra getting pissed about losing a Grammy to a nerdy comedian would have to be in the script. [Kyle Ryan]


14. Rodgers and Hammerstein write Oklahoma!, 1940-43

Although their names are inextricably linked today, it took a while for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to find one another. Rodgers had worked with Lorenz Hart on half a dozen lauded projects while Hammerstein had found his own success with Jerome Kern. But when Hart’s alcoholism destroyed his ability to work, Rodgers approached Hammerstein about joining forces. Over the course of the next decade, they produced some of the most iconic musicals in the American canon, including Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I, and The Sound Of Music. But this biopic would dramatize the very first project they created, Oklahoma!, which ushered in a new era of story-driven book musicals and cemented the greatest musical theater writing partnership of the 20th century. [Caroline Siede]

15. David Letterman: The Hollywood years, 1975-80

Given how little he cared for his portrayal in HBO’s The Late Shift, which he described as “the biggest waste of film since my wedding photos,” it seems unlikely that David Letterman would ever sign off on a film examining the years he spent in Hollywood before his first talk show. That’s too bad, because it’s a great story about a young man from Indiana packing up his pickup truck and driving to Los Angeles to seek his fortune in comedy, only to spend several years struggling to find his comedic voice and suffering through bad ’70s variety shows. Letterman’s marriage failed, and to hear him tell it, he battled through some degree of alcoholism. But he made lifelong friends like Jeff Altman, Michael Keaton, and Jimmie Walker; bonded with Robin Williams; and, yes, forged a friendship with Jay Leno that would turn into a rivalry. But as the film ends, he’s on his way to fulfilling his destiny as one of TV’s greatest hosts. [Will Harris]


16. John Lennon and Harry Nilsson’s “lost weekend,” 1973-75

Often overlooked in the lore about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s relationship is their 18-month separation in the mid-’70s. Lennon spent much of this time, generally referred to as “the lost weekend,” with his former personal assistant, May Pang (who documented it in her book Loving John), but also with Harry Nilsson. The film would have scenes of the booze-fueled recording of Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album, the pair getting thrown out of a Smothers Brothers show for being obnoxious, and Lennon contemplating his return to Ono, but also a key moment in rock history: Lennon signing the papers that formally dissolved The Beatles. [Will Harris]


17. Syd Barrett’s rise and fall, 1967-75

One of the sadder stories of ’60s music is that of Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, whose drug consumption and mental breakdown ended his music career before the ’70s hit their halfway mark. Drugs have taken most of the blame for Barrett’s breakdown, but others have suggested he suffered from schizophrenia, and former bandmate David Gilmour has said Barrett didn’t have the capacity to deal with Pink Floyd’s success. Unsurprisingly, his shambling attempt at a solo career post-Floyd had little chance of succeeding. About a decade ago, Johnny Depp expressed interest in a Barrett biopic, and no wonder: The sad stories of his eccentricity and mental collapse are well-documented. Although Barrett’s later life—living anonymously in Cambridge, England—would also be interesting to explore, a perfect closing moment for the film would be Barrett turning up unexpectedly during Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here sessions while the band recorded the Barrett-inspired “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” [Will Harris]

18. Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson’s long nights, 1978-80

The visceral, lovingly prolonged drug sequences in Scorsese films bear the imprint of a man who danced around the volcano and lived to tell. The filmmaker and singer-songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson forged a kindred connection during the filming of The Band’s swan song The Last Waltz. Scorsese invited Robertson to stay at his Mulholland Drive bachelor pad, and a toxically creative bond was born, fueled by depression, Kurosawa films, and cocaine. Scorsese was wracked with insecurity following Taxi Driver, doubting his talent and nursing divorce wounds with all-night drug and movie binges. Robertson was a Golden God marquee icon with too much money. Scorsese would probably never share any footage of their late-night escapades and non-stop partying, but a linear biopic, tracing the duo’s debauchery amidst the tail end of the New Hollywood movement, would be sufficient. [Drew Fortune]