Getting On Up, Walking the Line and Seeing the Light: The World of Musical Biopics

Tom Hiddleston will be up early on January 17, 2017. So will Ethan Hawke. Don Cheadle too.


Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

Film Review I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams (above), Don Cheadle as Miles Davis (left) and Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone (below)

That’s the day the next Oscar nominations will be announced, and Hiddleston, Hawke and Cheadle will be getting up before dawn to see whether they’ve been nominated as Best Actor for their performances as, respectively, country icon Hank Williams in I Saw the Light, acclaimed jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born to be Blue and jazz legend Miles Davis in Miles Ahead.  Not far away, Zoe Saldana will be watching to see if her performance as Nina Simone in Nina has won her first Oscar nomination.




There will be plenty of other candidates for the five Best Actor nominations, but Hiddleston, Hawke and Cheadle will have good reason to be hopeful. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences long has smiled on actors starring in biopics about pop musicians. James Cagney, Marion Cotillard, Jamie Foxx, Sissy Spacek, Barbra Streisand and Reese Witherspoon all took home Oscars, and Julie Andrews, Angela Bassett, Gary Busey, Laurence Fishburne, Jessica Lange, Bette Midler, Joaquin Phoenix and Diana Ross all got Best Actor/Actress nominations.

The track record isn’t so good for the films themselves. Bound for Glory (1976) and Ray (2004) copped Best Picture nominations, but the last—and only—musical biopic to win Best Picture was The Sound of Music (1965), more than a half-century ago.

That’s pretty remarkable, given that musical biopics have been a Hollywood staple since Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and The Jolson Story (1946)—which earned Best Actor nominations for stars James Cagney and Larry Parks, with Cagney winning—and that biopics have won two of the last six Best Picture Oscars and been accorded 10 of the last 25 Best Picture nominations. Apparently the Academy admires actors who play musicians, but doesn’t consider musicians’ stories to make for great movies.


Founding Fathers: James Cagney as George M. Cohan…


…and Larry Parks as Al Jolson in The Jolson Story.

Nonetheless, musical biopics continue to get made. Actors love them, and studios see them as pre-sold: If audiences like the music, they believe, they’ll come to see the movie.

Musical biopics are a tricky genre, however. They start out with some structural problems: People may come for the songs, but every time the action pauses for a song, the story starts to drag.

They’re also tough to cast because, regardless of what performer your film is about, the number of bankable stars who both look passably like him/her and can sing and/or play instruments is vanishingly small. Often this leads to outcomes like the 45-year-old Kevin Spacey playing the 20-something Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea (2004). Even if your star looks and/or sounds like the person he is playing, moreover, he may spend so much effort accomplishing it that, instead of a performance, he delivers nothing but an imitation.


Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn

There’s always lip-syncing, but today’s actors take that as a slur on their integrity, a refusal to let them deliver more than a half-performance. Their eagerness to play the part fully is commendable, but it’s hard to argue that Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Walk the Line (2005) and I Saw the Light wouldn’t have been that little bit better with the actual voices of Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. All three actors did remarkable work on the music, but not even they would deny that the originals were better yet. Larry Parks was luckier than most biopic stars: Al Jolson was still around to provide his own voice, and Parks lip-synced his way to an Oscar nomination.

One way around this is to take the approach of Crazy: The Hank Garland Story (2008), the upcoming Florence Foster Jenkins or Bound for Glory, and pick a subject whose face isn’t instantly recognizable. If people don’t know what your character looked like, they won’t know if your star fits the part.

Another way is to tell the story of a famous musician, but to focus on his or her earlier years, before the artist emerged as an iconic figure. The Sound of Music, Backbeat (1994) and Nowhere Boy (2009) take this approach, bringing us Maria von Trapp, the Beatles and John Lennon in their formative years and then rolling the credits as they ascend to glory

Then there’s casting a singer as a singer, as with Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Bette Midler as more or less Janis Joplin in The Rose (1979) or Beyonce Knowles as, essentially, Ross in Dreamgirls (2006). The trouble is, great singers thrive on their uniqueness, not their resemblance to others. Ross’s Oscar-nominated performance is a winner and she sounds great, but she sounds more like Ross than like Holiday. Beyonce sounds more like Beyonce than like Ross.

A specialized solution, not available to most filmmakers, was used by Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) and Straight Outta Compton (2016), which used respectively the voice of Hank Williams Jr. and the voice and face of O’Shea Jackson Jr. to embody Hank Williams and Ice Cube, their fathers. Gloria DeHaven also cameoed as her own mother in Three Little Words (1950), as comedian Eddie Foy Jr. had as his father in Yankee Doodle Dandy eight years earlier.

In a pinch, you can always do a lightly fictionalized story, a la The Rose, Almost Famous (2000), Rock Star (2001), 8 Mile (2002), Dreamgirls and, particularly, I’m Not There (2007). Everyone knows who’s supposed to be whom, but the filmmakers can cast anyone they want—even, in the case of 8 Mile, the artist himself—and shrug and say, “It’s fiction.”


Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner

Let’s say, though, that you’ve got a bankable star who does a reasonably good job of representing the musician your movie is about. You still have some choices to make.

A true biopic is one that begins with the lead character’s youth, proceeds through her life and ends with her death, the way most written biographies do. This is a valid approach to take with a biopic, and some films about musicians do exactly that—notably The Glenn Miller Story (1952), The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and Your Cheatin’ Heart.

This approach, while neat and narratively solid, has some drawbacks from a storytelling perspective. For one thing, it’s hard to do if the subject of the movie is still alive.

For another, most of the musicians about whom movies get made spend their later years as superstars, rich, famous and basking in the spotlight’s glow. Their best work is usually long behind them, but so are their biggest challenges. In short, the later years tend to be predictable, even boring—and, of course, a movie that ends with the hero’s death tends to be a little depressing.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly and Hank Williams biopics—like The Rose and Sweet Dreams (1985)—that encompass pretty much the whole life also are about musicians who died prematurely, at the height of their powers. The what-might-have-been aspect of their stories is part of their aura, and the films reflect that.

For longer-lived stars, sometimes the answer is to make the film basically an origin story. Coal Miner’s Daughter, many people’s candidate for the best musical biopic ever, is about Loretta Lynn’s climb to the top, and it leaves her in the late 1960s, a half-century of fame still to come. The same is true of Bound for Glory, which sets Woody Guthrie on his path but doesn’t concern itself with his later years.

As with non-musical biopics such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Shakespeare in Love (1998), October Sky (1999) and 42 (2013), these films posit that the struggle is the interesting part, that it’s enough to set the heroine on the path to glory—we don’t need to see her accumulating awards, accolades and gold records to get the idea. This is also, obviously, true of “prequel” movies such as The Sound of Music and Nowhere Boy, which end before their protagonists become professional musicians.


Bound for Glory: Julie Andrews & Co. as the future Trapp Family Singers

Sometimes, however, the struggle isn’t at the beginning. Some of the most successful musical biopics have discarded the idea of telling the entire life story in favor of zeroing in on a particular moment of crisis, a point at which hopefully the protagonist’s deepest, most human identity comes to the surface.

That’s the case with Walk the Line, in which Johnny Cash’s late-1960s drug crisis and marital breakup is the crux of the film, and with What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), in which Tina Turner’s breakup with her abusive husband is seen as the core of her story. These films cover their protagonist’s climb to the top, but argue that the real triumph was over personal demons of one sort or another. Born to be Blue, Miles Ahead and Nina do much the same, focusing on crises relatively late in their subjects’ careers.

This brings its own problems, including basic ones of authenticity. Hollywood likes its stories tied up with a neat bow, so Walk the Line ends with Cash getting off drugs and finding true love with June Carter. Real life isn’t nearly so neat, though, and in reality Cash’s sobriety was relatively short-lived—he would battle drugs essentially to the end of his life—and his marriage with Carter was a troubled one.

If movie-goers leave thinking something else, well, that’s Hollywood: Even biopics have a disclaimer at the end that it’s only a movie.

The old-fashioned answer to authenticity issues is to disregard them entirely and make the movie whatever you want it to be, ignoring those pesky old facts. Night and Day (1946) cast Cary Grant as a cheerfully heterosexual songwriter referred to as “Cole Porter” in a film which included numerous Porter songs but otherwise had little to do with Porter’s actual life. Your Cheatin’ Heart, based on the recollections of Hank Williams’ first wife, made her a virtual angel and left out his womanizing and his second wife entirely. The Buddy Holly Story was so thoroughly fictional that lifelong Holly fan Paul McCartney produced and appeared in a rebuttal documentary, The Real Buddy Holly Story (1985).

Another avenue is to make your movie in a wild, expressionist way that makes questions of authenticity largely irrelevant. This was the approach Oliver Stone took in The Doors (1991), but the all-time champion is unquestionably Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, in which six different actors—including an Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett—play someone who isn’t explicitly identified as Bob Dylan in a freewheeling series of scenes relating, sometimes obliquely, to Dylan’s life.

Regardless of the hurdles, though, musical biopics will continue to be made. Actors love the challenge of mastering a look, an accent, a performance style, even a new instrument, and the corporate-owned studios—most with ties to record companies—love the synergy that not only provides a hit-studded soundtrack album but also can boost sales for the original artist’s back catalog.

As for audiences, they keep coming, drawn by the prospect of hits that they can hum not on their way out of the theater, but on their way into it.

(Copyright 2016 Gayden Wren.  Courtesy The New York Times Syndicate.)


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