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Discover the stories behind Hollywood hits with PBS Passport

It’s awards season in Hollywood, and as we wait for this year’s Oscar winners to be presented, I am unabashedly rooting for the feminist manifesto that is Barbie. But if the Golden Globes were any indication, the equally deserving Oppenheimer looks likely to take several of the coveted statuettes. In the spirit of red carpet season, this edition of “Handpicked by Heather” shines the spotlight on the real people and true stories behind the Hollywood versions. Read on to go behind the scenes of six award-winning films with your WTIU PBS Passport benefit.

Not a Passport user yet? Not to worry—we’ve included a bonus feature, available free on demand to all WTIU viewers at or on the PBS app. Be sure to read the full blog to check it out!

Elvis signing autographs

The Seven Ages of Elvis

Nominated for eight Oscars in 2023, the biographical film Elvis depicts the rise and fall of The King of Rock and Roll, with critically acclaimed performances by Austin Butler as Elvis Presley and Tom Hanks as his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker. Presley’s family embraced the film for its respectful portrayal of Elvis, with daughter Lisa Marie describing it as “deeply profound and artistic.” Personally, I found the film’s over-the-top style, while entertaining, a bit overwhelming and frenetic. For a little less action and a lot more conversation (to paraphrase Elvis), see how things really unfolded for Presley in The Seven Ages of Elvis, available with the WTIU PBS Passport member benefit. Featuring rarely seen footage of Elvis on- and off-stage (including a jam session with the Beatles) and interviews with Elvis’s closest friends, school mates, and co-stars (including Dolores Hart, his love interest in King Creole, now a Benedictine nun living in Chicago), the acclaimed documentary tracks the life of Elvis through the heights and pitfalls of modern super-celebrity.


Young Brian Wilson

 Brian Wilson: The Long Promised Road

The highs and lows of another music icon are chronicled in one of my all-time favorite films, Love & Mercy. Snubbed by the Oscars, the film nonetheless garnered much acclaim when it premiered in 2014. Listed by Rolling Stone as one of the best films of the year, Love & Mercy depicts the life, genius, and struggles of Brian Wilson, who along with his brothers, cousin, and a friend became legendary as the Beach Boys. Considered one of the most accurate biopics ever made, the film’s authenticity becomes even further amplified when viewed in conjunction with the American Masters episode The Long Promised Road, featuring Wilson alongside his friend and writer Jason Fine. Follow along as they visit Wilson’s old neighborhood, high school, and other Los Angeles landmarks in the Beach Boys’ story, sharing poignant memories along the way. Interviews with such musical legends as Elton John and Bruce Springsteen bring even greater depth to Wilson’s story. Pick up on the good vibrations of this special episode with your WTIU PBS Passport member benefit!


Abandoned bus from Into the Wild

Return to the Wild

Thirty-two years ago, a young hiker was found dead in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Today, the life and death of Chris McCandless remains both heartbreaking and perplexing. The 2007 film Into the Wild, nominated for two Oscars including best screenplay, is a faithful retelling of the internationally bestselling book of the same name by Jon Krakauer. Into the Wild retraces McCandless’s journey in an effort to understand his enigmatic choices, including his rejection of a privileged life and his decision to travel the country as a vagabond. What was missing from that narrative, at the request of McCandless’s sister Carine (who served as a consultant on the book and the film) was a bizarre family secret that she and her half-sisters are now sharing in the documentary Return to the Wild. Follow Carine and her sisters as they share memories from their sad and strange childhood, visit the site of their brother’s death, and shed light on Chris’s decision to choose a nomadic and, ultimately, solitary life and death.


Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco

Secrets of the Dead: Gangland Graveyard

My husband and I are celebrating a silver anniversary. Not our own, but that of the groundbreaking series The Sopranos. We’ve been binge-watching the show that we originally could only catch on Sunday nights, one episode at a time, patiently waiting from week to week to find out what Tony and his notorious mobster friends would do next. (My kids can’t even imagine the grueling existence we led in the days before streaming!). While The Sopranos is universally credited with kickstarting the “Second Golden Age of Television,” there is a deep history of gangland crime narrative throughout American pop culture. From 1931’s The Public Enemy to Martin Scorcese’s powerhouse Godfather trilogy, many of these stories draw from real-life characters and incidents. But perhaps none is as true to life as the 1997 film Donnie Brasco, based on the experiences of Joe Pistone, a real-life FBI agent who went undercover to infiltrate the Bonanno family in the 1970s. Posing as a jewel thief and using the alias Donnie Brasco, Pistone’s five years of undercover work led to over 100 convictions of Mafia members. Get wise with PBS Passport when you watch the Gangland Graveyard episode of Secrets of the Dead and meet the real Joe Pistone. As Tony Soprano would say, “It’s okay, he’s a friend of ours.”


Great White Shark

Nova: Why Sharks Attack

Who can forget Jaws, the 1975 film that made director Steven Spielberg a household name—and made the rest of us afraid to go in the water? In the film, a seaside resort town is terrorized by a great white shark intent on killing unsuspecting beachgoers. The town’s police chief, along with a professional shark hunter and a marine biologist, played by the then little-known actor Richard Dreyfuss, strike out on the water to hunt down the killer. The film smashed box office records but did little to create a better understanding of the true nature of sharks. Take a deep dive below the surface with Nova to learn Why Sharks Attack—and what deterrents are being developed to prevent aggression toward humans. You won’t need a bigger boat to find out, but you will need the WTIU PBS Passport member benefit!


 Stephen Hawking


The 2014 film The Theory of Everything details the remarkable life of physicist Steven Hawking. Based on the 2007 memoir by his ex-wife Jane, the film traces their romance, Hawking’s battle with ALS, and his work that led to him becoming the most well-known physicist since Albert Einstein. Actor Eddie Redmayne, who won the Oscar for his impressive performance as Hawking, reportedly spent six months poring over interview footage and spending time with Hawking to learn his mannerisms and speech patterns. Meet the real man behind Redmayne’s portrayal in Hawking, an intimate story of Stephen Hawking's life filmed five years prior to his death in 2018. The documentary takes viewers into Hawking’s world to meet the man behind the genius, along with his care team, friends, and colleagues.


To learn more about and from Stephen Hawking, tune into his series Genius, where you can explore the possibility of time travel, the origins of the universe, and whether aliens exist. Join three ordinary people who take on challenges laid out by Hawking to find out the answers to these and other universal mysteries. It’s all available now (and possibly in a parallel universe) with the WTIU PBS Passport member benefit.


 Gilded Age Woman

American Experience: The Gilded Age

The HBO hit The Gilded Age comes from the creative genius of Julian Fellowes—famed creator of PBS stalwart Downton Abbey. The series just wrapped its 2nd season, and its ensemble cast is currently nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award. Much like its transatlantic predecessor, The Gilded Age depicts the “upstairs, downstairs” dynamic of wealth and privilege, this time set in 1880’s New York. Following the journey of a young woman who moves to New York and quickly gets entangled in the social skirmishes of high society, the series explores the period of American history when the divide between the haves and have-nots was immense. Although the series is a work of fiction, Fellowes is credited for accurately representing the realities of the time period, including the conflict between old- and new-money, in characters loosely based on the well-bred Astors and their gauche neighbors, the Vanderbilts. Delve into the simultaneously glittering and subjugated world of the real Gilded Age in this engaging episode of American Experience, available free on-demand to all WTIU viewers at  or with the PBS app!


Downton Abbey

Speaking of Downton Abbey, the iconic series leaves Passport on January 31st. Binge all six seasons while you can with the WTIU PBS Passport member benefit!