AMC Network Entertainment LLC

This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.

Famous Actors Playing Famous Musicians

Phoenixwalktheline_2Jaie_foxx_as_rayI hear that some viewers who have seen I’m Not There are put off by the use of six different actors to play Bob Dylan, often with no attempt to look anything like Dylan. (The one who comes closest, amusingly, is actress Cate Blanchett.) I guess those people were expecting a standard biopic instead of the more intellectual examination of identity the movie presents. (Remember that it’s directed by Todd Haynes, who first made a name for himself telling the story of Karen Carpenter with Barbie dolls in his 1987 short Superstar.)

One of the reasons I think I’m Not There works so well is that the multiple-actor strategy avoids the common problem with biographies of contemporary subjects: the discomfort we feel watching an impersonation of someone who is already famous to us. Jamie Foxx did an astonishing job of capturing Ray Charles in Ray, but it was hard to shake the awareness that what you were watching was an imitation, no matter how well done. To play the young Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix opted to do an interpretation of the character rather than mimicking the person, and he gave an interesting performance. But in the end he faced the same problem: we’re so familiar with Johnny Cash that it makes it hard to lose ourselves in the story to watch someone else play him.

This was less of a problem in years past, when we weren’t so inundated with images of popular performers. When Cary Grant played Cole Porter in 1946’s Night and Day, audiences accepted him because they probably hadn’t seen anything other than a photo of two of the real Porter, and because the elegant, self-effacing Grant was a match to the persona evoked by Porter’s songs. (So what if the story bore almost no relation to Porter’s real life? The 2004 De-Lovely got the biography right but everything else wrong.) Ditto James Cagney’s Oscar-winning portrayal of George M. Cohen in Yankee Doodle Dandy: the energetic Cagney looked like the soul of those boisterous songs.

The genre of movies about popular musicians has been increasing in the past two decades—Great Balls of Fire, Sweet Dreams, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Bound For Glory, The Buddy Holly Story, Backbeat, Closer, Stoned, Sid and Nancy, 24 Hour Party People, Beyond the Sea, etc., etc. And we’ll be seeing lots more of them, a mixed blessing at best. I’d love to see a movie about the manic Keith Moon, drummer for The Who. And there’s one in production, with a great title—See Me Feel Me: Keith Moon Naked for Your Pleasure. But I just can’t see Moon being played by Mike Myers, who at 43 is eleven years older than Moon was when he died, and therefore 20 years older than Moon at his peak.

Let’s hear from you. What contemporary musician would you like to see a movie about, and who would you like to see playing him or her?

Read More