Thinking of making a film about Hendrix? Iggy Pop? The drummer from Cud? First heed Andrew Roberts's advice...an ill-starred Iggy script still circulates, while Keith Moon and Jimi Hendrix treatments await permissions, lead actors and other trifling details) it falls to MOJO to cast a gimlet eye over this popular genre. And with Telstar--Nick Moran's deliciously vulgar Joe Meek film --receiving unexpected plaudits, not least in MOJO, it's an opportunity to revisit what makes some rock biopics pretty great, and others a pile of Cadillac Records.
Step with MOJO back in time to 1957. The place--far west London's Pinewood Studios. The occasion--Britain's first ever rock'n'roll biopic The Tommy Steele Story starring, logically enough, Tommy Steele as "Tommy Steele." The film's merits mainly revolve around Tommy's agreeable self-penned rock 'n' roll numbers and its faults are mainly due to the dire script. Given that Steele had never acted before, his performance was quite impressive--but this modest B-film does give rise to a series of conundrums for any potential rock 'n' roll biopic producer.
Firstly, if the subject is still alive, should you let them play themselves? One solution is to have the artist play a lightly fictionalized version of him/her. Occasionally this can pay dividends--the Beatles in a Hard Day's Night, Eminem in 8 Mile for example or Slade in Flame--but more often it can result in Spice World. Or even the legendary The Song Remains The Same, in which concert footage of Led Zeppelin is interspersed with celluloid realizations of each band member's bizarre private fantasies. In color. For several reels.
Secondly, if you are trying to make a film of a musician who is long since dead or deceased, problems with potential libel suits may be over, but another challenge can be that little or no archive material exists of their performances. Clint Eastwood had only 20 minutes of footage of Charlie Parker to research when he was preparing the excellent Bird. Barely any more television material exists of Buddy Holly, but Gary Busey's guitar work and singing in The Buddy Holly Story was so good that the actor managed to overcome a script that was marginally less historically accurate than U571 or Braveheart.
The performances of Busey and Forrest Whittaker of Charlie Parker are a testament to the wisdom of using a talented character actor to play the central role, an idea that suddenly becomes very attractive whenever the budding producer recalls Val Kilmer in The Doors. It also helps if little is actually known about the film's subject--with the best will in the world, Southampton's own Heinz Burt was arguably less famous than Elvis but this allowed the brilliant actor J J Field to create the bass player as a genuine character in Telstar.
But when the biopic is of an artist such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis or The Beatles, the unenviable challenge for the actor is to emulate an image ingrained in the audience's psyche, and to take it beyond caricature. The film's budget has little or nothing to do with this process--Don Cheadle's masterful portrayal of Sammy Davis Jr was in an HBO special The Rat Pack. The money spent on The Hours & Times was a fraction of the recent films on the lives of Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, but Ian Hart's depiction of John Lennon was just as charismatic as that of Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix.
And it is the central performance that carries any decent music biopic, regardless of whether the actor can also sing or play an instrument. As David Mamet wrote of Larry Parks in The Jolson Story --"Parks lip-synchs some twenty Jolson songs, inhabiting them. The voice is actually Al Jolson's, the fervour, the grace and the humour are Parks's, in a spectacular display of commitment, love and skill."
There remain some artists whose lives beg for celluloid treatment--Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Nick Drake come to mind--but regardless of the musical genre, the essential challenge will be to make the audience forget that they are watching an actor.
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- Tommy Steele