- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

To sing or not to sing: That is the question that has faced directors and stars of music biopics for decades — and it’s more ticklish than one might think.

For instance, “Ray” director Taylor Hackford had a bona fide singer in Jamie Foxx (he’ll soon release his debut CD) for last year’s Oscar-winning screen biography of Ray Charles. Yet he opted, understandably, for Mr. Foxx to lip-sync to Mr. Charles’ inimitable vocals, figuring he’d capture enough of the soul legend’s essence through the physicality of Mr. Foxx’s performance.

In the just-released “Walk the Line,” however, director James Mangold took a non-singer, actor Joaquin Phoenix, and put him through the paces of vocal training to play the equally inimitable Johnny Cash. Co-star Reese Witherspoon, too, developed vocal chops from scratch for her turn as June Carter.

“I was blown away. They worked a lot of hours getting it right, and that took a lot of courage,” says Shelby Lynne, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter who makes her acting debut in “Walk the Line” as Mr. Cash’s mother, Carrie Cash.

“The thing about Joaquin is he sounds eerily like the guy,” she says. “That’s one of the most original voices you’ll hear in our lifetime. He nailed it.”

Forest Whitaker may or may not have had an easier time playing sax legend Charlie Parker (an instrumentalist, not a singer), but let’s agree that singing poses the greatest risk.

There’s clearly an irony at work here: Having actors do their own singing lends a you-are-there authenticity to their performance that transcends the literal fidelity to music history preserved when an actor mouths lyrics along to an original recording.

For example, Elvis Presley’s voice is perhaps one of the most familiar in modern history — but who couldn’t appreciate the convincing immediacy of Kurt Russell’s interpretation in the 1979 TV biopic “Elvis”?

Conversely — and counterintuitively — the sound of Mr. Charles’ voice in “Ray” reminded many viewers of the artifice of the biopic enterprise, whereas in “Walk” they are apt to feel closer to the electricity and sweat of a real Cash concert.

Or, alternatively, they’ll decide Mr. Phoenix’s pipes are a pale imitation of the Man in Black’s.

“I’m not John. I don’t have that voice,” Mr. Phoenix told Associated Press recently. “If people want to hear Johnny Cash, there’s a whole bunch of records they can buy.”

Filmmakers and actors have taken a variety of paths in music biopics over the last 30 years. Jessica Lange didn’t attempt to re-create Patsy Cline’s voice in “Sweet Dreams” (1985), but nonetheless earned an Oscar nomination.

By contrast, Sissy Spacek did her own vocals as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980), and won the Best Actress Oscar.

Ian Hart was apparently so convincing as John Lennon in 1994’s “Backbeat” that the late Beatle’s ex-wife, Cynthia Lennon, told son Julian to attend the movie’s London premiere, promising, “You’re gonna meet your father tonight.”

Gary Busey proved himself an able performer by singing and playing guitar in 1978’s “The Buddy Holly Story.” Maybe too able. Sometimes an actor can become so melded in the public mind with the musical giant he has portrayed that he can never shake the identification. Is that what happened to Mr. Busey? He earned an Oscar nomination in 1979 for his performance as Holly, his first. And last.

Other biopics have offered a mixture of methods. In 1987’s “La Bamba,” the contemporary rock band Los Lobos resurrected Ritchie Valens’ songs for actor Lou Diamond Phillips to lip-sync to. Similarly, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded new versions of his hits for 1989’s “Great Balls of Fire,” starring a lip-syncing Dennis Quaid.

In Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” (1991), Val Kilmer did his own singing when the camera was close, while Jim Morrison’s voice was piped in for wide shots.

Each of these movies succeeded to varying degrees, suggesting that vocal verisimilitude isn’t necessarily a decisive issue.

As Miss Lynne, a natural singer since childhood, notes, there’s more to music biopics than music: Actors are trying to convey a multifaceted life, not merely a body of songs.

“It’s all in what’s appropriate,” she says. “Jessica Lange didn’t sing Patsy. But Sissy played Loretta and did all the singing. It’s not that she sounded exactly like her. It’s that she was so brilliant that you didn’t care.”

A biopic’s distance from its subject can sometimes be a factor in how genuine it seems. Memories of the long-dead Bobby Darin, for instance, were hazy enough for Kevin Spacey to fill in with his phantasmagoric song-and-dance routine in last year’s “Beyond the Sea.”

On the other hand, a biopic is strengthened by the stature of its subject. The Latin pop singer Selena had only just begun to win over a mass audience before she was murdered in 1995.

“Selena,” the 1997 movie based on her life, came too soon.

Not too soon, however, to avoid the casting of the then up-and-coming star, the dreadful Jennifer Lopez.

The success of biopics, in the end, really does come down to acting.

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