Films about pop figures, especially of the live-fast-die-young variety, have become a staple of cinema, and often breakout vehicles for actors.
But movies about the survivors have also proved to be a draw, as exemplified by “Ray,” “Walk the Line” and what might very well be one of this year’s most talked-about releases, “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic meditation on Bob Dylan. In the film, six actors inhabit various guises of the 20th century’s most influential troubadour.
“I’m Not There” is part of a recent bumper crop of pop biopics, including Olivier Dahan’s Edith Piaf saga “La Vie en rose” and Anton Corbijn’s drama “Control,” about the short, unhappy life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis.
Then there’s Leon Ichaso’s “El Cantante,” which is as much a cautionary tale about ill-fated salsa king Hector Lavoe as it is about how such ventures can sink under the weight of predictability and a less-than-compelling central performance. In fact, the tropes associated with pop biopics have become so familiar — impoverished roots mired in dysfunction; sudden fame, along with its attendant temptations; ultimate redemption and/or untimely death — that Sony Pictures is rolling out a spoof of the genre, “Walk Hard.”
In these works, it’s the self-destruction of misunderstood genius that inspires a sort of cinematic sainthood. There’s a telling moment in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” when Dizzy Gillespie says to a strung-out Charlie Parker, played by Forest Whitaker: “I’m trying to be a reformer and you’re trying to be a martyr. They always remember the martyrs longer.”
But how does one make a movie about a famous musician that avoids cliche when so many have tread the same self-destructive path? Even Mozart, as depicted in “Amadeus,” partied like a rock star, and paid the ultimate price. Sometimes the facts simply get in the way of telling a story that feels fresh. But a charismatic lead performance often goes a long way toward smoothing over the rough spots.
“There’s a certain narrative that has developed over the years as it pertains to musical artists,” explains Dr. Todd Boyd, professor of cinema studies at USC. “A lot of times what you find in these films is a series of very common stereotypes.
“Even still, it comes down to the performance,” Boyd adds. “From an acting standpoint, a lot of people give a great deal of credit to an individual who is able to take the life of a real person and render that dramatically onscreen.”
Peter Guralnick, author of the Elvis Presley biography “Last Train to Memphis,” says the inherent problem of many pop biopics is the attempt to cover too much ground.
“You lose any sense of character,” he explains, “and you end up having these tableaux of familiar scenes which never have the same impact as the actual events. Now, if you have Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles you have a different story — just in the energy he put into it and the verisimilitude of his performance.”
In her review of the 1972 biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” for which Diana Ross earned an Oscar nomination for playing Billie Holiday, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael observed: “In certain kinds of movies, the chemistry of pop vulgarization is all-powerful. You don’t want to resist the pull of it, because it has a celebrity-star temperament you don’t get from anything else; this kitsch has its own kind of authenticity. … Factually it’s a fraud, but emotionally it delivers.”
It’s this emotional punch that wins over audiences and catapults actors to the A-list ranks. Foxx, Reese Witherspoon, Sissy Spacek and Barbra Streisand have won Academy Awards for playing pop figures, while many others — including Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Lopez and Angela Bassett — were thrust from character parts to serious leading-star status, with Oscar nominations often in the mix.
But the best pop biopics are the result of a delicate alchemy. For every “Ray,” “Walk the Line” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” there’s an “El Cantante,” “Beyond the Sea” and “De-Lovely.” Oftentimes the bigger the subject, the more impossible the expectations. Which is why a relatively obscure figure like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, as portrayed by Sam Riley, is less susceptible to charges of fraud.
“Lou Diamond Phillips, who played Ritchie Valens in ‘La Bamba’ wonderfully, didn’t look anything like him,” explains that film’s producer, Taylor Hackford, who also directed “Ray.” “But there wasn’t the burden of playing an absolute American icon. Ray Charles was in everyone’s thoughts, eyes and ears. He was on television all the time. He was one of the most beloved and known personalities in America. So Jamie had to do a spot-on interpretation or we would have failed.”
Adds Guralnick: “You’re always faced in any historical thing like that with the problem of: Is it real or is it impersonation? That’s the challenge not just in artists’ bios but in historical bios.”
Edith Piaf might be a national hero in her home country, but outside of France she’s more known for her voice than her visage. And while reviews for “La Vie en rose” were mixed, critics were almost uniform in their praise of Marion Cotillard, who lip-syncs to Piaf so convincingly that the full range of Piaf’s tortured life springs to the surface.
Speaking of Piaf’s timeless appeal, Cotillard draws parallels to Judy Garland.
“The beautiful stories that she sang are full of emotions, and those emotions cross time,” Cotillard says. “You can really imagine in your mind all those stories — the prostitute, the man who plays the accordion — when you listen to her songs.”
It also helps for the actor to exhibit some inherent musicality. Cotillard has recorded music and sung in other films, and Foxx is a recording artist in his own right, even though neither used their own voices in their respective biopics. Riley, on the other hand, sings in “Control” and plays in a band when he’s not acting. (Spacek also used her own voice in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” as did Phoenix and Witherspoon in “Walk the Line.”)
“You can’t fake using a microphone and standing in front of the mic,” Riley asserts. “I always thought that performing with a band and acting were the same.”
Beyond the visceral impact that pop biopics project, Guralnick feels that the more inspired approaches “are made in films that are off center and in films which are fictional,” giving the filmmaker more latitude. “Todd Haynes is taking (Dylan) head-on, and he’s shattering any expectations that someone might have going in simply by casting a woman (Cate Blanchett) as Dylan.”
Haynes, for his part, has never had a problem breaking the cookie-cutter mold. During his guerrilla filmmaking days, he made a movie about Karen Carpenter called “Superstar,” using Barbie dolls to illustrate an almost clinical account of anorexia nervosa, distorted self-image and, as the movie pointed out, “the internal experience of contemporary femininity.”
“It’s always my ambition to really look at what different artists were doing stylistically, formally, aesthetically in their work and try to find a narrative and visual parallel to that in the medium of film,” Haynes says. “It was something that I really tried to do in ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ where the entire style of the film was drenched in this sort of high camp aesthetic that’s very tongue in cheek but also surprisingly moving at times.
“But in the same way (with “I’m Not There”), I really tried to have a film that kind of functioned with as much richness, complexity, but also pure fun and humor, as Dylan’s music has over the years. That’s a tall order, but it’s something that I wanted at least to take a real stab at.”
Of all the actors who play Dylan in Haynes’ movie, it’s Blanchett, an Academy favorite and the one woman among the six actors, who has garnered the most buzz for her take on Dylan’s dandified electric period of 1966.
“We tried to create a sense not only of the strangeness of Dylan’s persona, but also of the heightened state that he was existing in,” Blanchett tells Variety. “If you now look back at that era of his musical output, the wealth and density of it was enormous. But at the time, he was up onstage every night being booed. So it was the interface between what you know to be true as an artist and then what you’re being told, and somewhere there is a toll taken.”
Adds Haynes: “I wanted to use a woman for that part because I felt that that particular Dylan was this otherworldly creature, this androgynous creature, but in a very different way than the androgyny of the glitter era that would follow.
“And yet we’re so used to seeing Dylan like that, that the shock of it, or the strangeness of it, had gone away, and I kind of wanted to reinvigorate that by having a different sex play him. But the character is played as a man, and (Blanchett) has no trouble with that. She is just remarkable.”