Playing a musician is one thing. Playing an instrument is another ...
Despite Jamie Foxx's comedic origins, it's no surprise that he's generating Oscar buzz for his portrayal of R&B legend Ray Charles in the biopic "Ray." For one, he's a trained classical pianist (so you know he can mime a C-major chord with the best of 'em), but he's also holding three surefire tickets to Academy nomination, which are: (1) play a historical figure, (2) play someone with a physical handicap and (3) play against type.
Every acting part has its own challenges. In portraying a musician, perhaps the most difficult is being convincing as a performer. It's one thing to learn and speak your lines convincingly (and not all actors have accomplished that), it's another to make an audience believe you can, in fact, rock (or swing or boogie or tickle the klavier, whatever the case may be).
In 1953, James Stewart starred in "The Glenn Miller Story" as the big-band leader who died during World War II. Stewart is one of cinema's most beloved figures, but a believable trombonist he did not make. Two years later, Steve Allen tried a little harder in "The Benny Goodman Story." Allen actually may have been the first actor to take lessons just to learn how to fake playing an instrument in a movie (the real Goodman played his clarinet from offscreen while Allen acted). Sal Mineo likewise did a believable job mimicking the frenetic drumming in 1959's "The Gene Krupa Story." And, as anyone who's ever watched "The Partridge Family" can tell you, fake drumming is easy to spot.
When bop booted big band out of the spotlight, Charlie Parker was at the forefront. The alto-sax innovator's tremendous talent and drug addiction were torturously delineated by Forest Whitaker in the 1988 Clint Eastwood film "Bird." When dealing with an artist as singular as Bird, it's almost mandatory to use the original recordings (which Eastwood had cleaned up and isolated, no easy task in those pre-computer days). But Whitaker perfectly captured the extroverted, unpredictable style of Parker, and the film paints an indelible portrait of one of jazz's greatest figures.
On the opposite end of the believability spectrum, we have 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues." The tragic tale of Billie Holiday (arguably the most important and instantly recognizable female singer in the history of jazz) takes a back seat to the vanity of this movie's star, legendary R&B diva Diana Ross. Having a singer play a singer can work if the actor is willing to sublimate his or her own ego in favor of capturing the subject. And Miss Ross' well-documented ego was not willing to take a back seat. Hence, no weight gain (see "Rewind: Body Modification In Hollywood Not Always Surgical") and no lip-synching, and no attempt to imitate Holiday's singular smoky phrasing. Curiously, Ross was awarded an Oscar nomination for her campy performance. Lady Day deserves a remake.
Country music certainly has its share of biographical tales to tell (where, oh where is "The Hank Williams Story"?!), yet the only two major film biographies were about two of its legendary women singers. In 1980, Sissy Spacek turned in an Oscar-winning performance as Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter." Five years later, Jessica Lange starred in "Sweet Dreams" as Patsy Cline. While Lange semi-convincingly lip-synched to original Patsy recordings, Spacek actually sang all of Lynn's songs herself, which were even released as a soundtrack album (maybe Spacek can talk Jack White into producing her comeback CD).
Once the rock and roll era began, music stars usually had to sing and play at the same time. Decades later, this presents a unique challenge to actors who attempt to channel those seminal rock stars.
Gary Busey not only donned the giant horn-rimmed glasses for 1978's "The Buddy Holly Story," he did all the singing and playing himself. Rather than go for a strict Holly impression, Busey attempted to channel the essence of the 1950s rocker. To make the performances ring true, the music was recorded live during filming rather than in the studio. But wait, there's more! To prepare for the role, Busey put together a band and toured, performing Buddy's songs before audiences so he'd be comfortable doing them for the movie. It all paid off: Busey received an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and "The Buddy Holly Story" holds up as one of the best rock bios (despite some revisionist history).
Dennis Quaid may have nailed the hair of Jerry Lee Lewis in 1989's "Great Balls of Fire," but he was startlingly unconvincing banging the keys and belting the rockabilly bad boy's songs. Lip-synching broadly, Quaid seemed like a live-action cartoon. To make the chicanery even more jarring, Lewis recorded new versions of his songs to be mimed, and the Killer's chops had obviously aged by then.
While they've been depicted in numerous films, onscreen performances by fake Beatles (not counting the Monkees) have been few. "Backbeat," released in 1994, deals with the Fab Four's formative time in Hamburg, Germany, when Pete Best was their drummer and Stu Sutcliffe was a fifth member. While the actors were serviceable in their roles (both on and off stage), the credit for capturing the vitality of the band really goes elsewhere. The actors synched to a group comprised of Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters). This made for a pretty rockin' garage band on songs like "Please Mr. Postman," "C'mon Everybody" and "Twist and Shout."
Val Kilmer may be a wash as an action hero, but he totally threw himself into the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's apocryphal 1991 movie "The Doors." Many have noted how uncannily dead-on Kilmer's onstage performances are in the film, but exactly how difficult was it to slip into the Lizard King's skin? Morrison was so overly dramatic in both voice and movement that practically anyone can do a decent impression of him; he's the rock equivalent of Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne ... if that makes sense.
But what if you're trying to play a musician who couldn't play well? Does that make it harder or easier? Gary Oldman faced that challenge in 1986's "Sid and Nancy." As the archetypal punk rocker, the Sex Pistols' musically (and mentally) challenged bassist Sid Vicious, Oldman spat, snarled and struggled to master a few notes while strung out on heroin and the most grating girlfriend in the history of rock. Oldman (and his co-stars) brilliantly evoked the powerful nihilism of that groundbreaking era where attitude and emotion trumped virtuosity.
The list goes on, of course. Tom Hulce as Wolfgang "Amadeus" Mozart, Gary Oldman as Beethoven in "Immortal Beloved" (making him the only actor to play both a classical composer and a punk rocker). Larry Parks in "The Al Jolson Story." Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens, synching to Los Lobos in "La Bamba." Jennifer Lopez's career-making role as "Selena" (no, she didn't sing herself: Selena's family felt it was imperative the original voice was used). The Sex Pistols (again), Joy Division and the Happy Mondays all got faux screen time in "24 Hour Party People." And Colm Feore's amazingly nuanced performance as the brilliant classical pianist in 1993's "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould" was so convincing it had some people thinking the film was a documentary.
And note that we didn't even get into the overstuffed vault of TV movies and series tackling the life stories of those who make the music. That's a whole book, and a mostly negative one at that. But moviegoers are cynical and savvy these days: We demand more believable performances from our actors, whether they're battling Orks or fronting a faux Velvet Underground. CGI can turn a skinny, pampered actor into a valiant warrior, but it can't yet convince us that a comedian can plink magic out of a piano.
Maybe playing a musician is one of the last great acting challenges. Or, at least, it will be until Hollywood starts making biographies of today's pop stars, who are actually more actors than musicians. No musical training at all will be necessary to star in "The Ashlee Simpson Story." Heck, the actress who'll land that role in 2054 won't even have to master the relative art of lip-synching.
She will have to learn how to dance a jig, though.
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