Music at the Movies (Film Biopics Think Piece)

Music at the Movies.

Spector to get the Pacino treatment in upcoming film…

…but what makes a successful music biopic?


Phil Spector


It was recently made public that Al Pacino is to portray legendary producer and equally legendary madman Phil Spector in an upcoming biopic. The film is to be directed by David Mamet, who worked with Pacino on 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

The announcement, made by the New York Times in early October, has been met with a mixture of anticipation and cautiousness by fans and critics alike. Pacino fans have their own concerns, but admirers of the wig-toting “wall of sound” creator will join the long line of die hard musician devotees subjected to a Hollywood depiction of their idols.

While the same New York Times article noted that Pacino does share Spector’s “imposing stare”, the Godfather star turned 70 this year, which leads to questions regarding his ability to play the producer in his younger heyday. It could be that audiences are just going to have to accept this oversight as artistic license, or that the filmmakers themselves are planning a celluloid representation of Spector’s later life. Either way, as previous directors have discovered, it’s impossible to please everyone.


But what makes a successful music biopic? Could it be the approach an actor takes in representing their respective subject? Joaquin Phoenix famously learned to play guitar after being selected for the role of Johnny Cash, and put in such a convincing performance that many Cash aficionados believed he was lip-syncing to the original material. Val Kilmer showed similar commitment in his depiction of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film The Doors. After having his audition tape approved by the band’s former producer Paul Rothchild, the Top Gun star reportedly spent a year dressed as the leather-clad signer and hanging out on the Sunset Strip. Although keyboardist Ray Manzarek had misgivings about the film’s glorified portrayal of Morrison’s life, the surviving band members were on the whole impressed with Kilmer’s vocal resemblance to their former front man.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors

Queen fans will be hoping that funny man Sacha Baron Cohen will be similarly successful in his depiction of Freddie Mercury, when production starts on a biopic of the band later this year. The Borat actor certainly shares some facial likenesses with the former singer. “Obviously he’s going to have the moustache”, explains Dr Ruth Dockwray, author of Queen: Anthems and Complex Songs, “and maybe he’ll have prosthetic teeth, because actually his teeth were a part of how [Mercury] sang.” Freelance journalist Carl Loben, also a researcher on the film, points out the practicalities of casting a recognized actor in the role. “He’s a huge box office draw. His involvement has made it much easier to secure funding and distribution.” Loben agrees that physical resemblance is an important factor in a music biopic. “The whole biopic genre depends on convincing portrayals of real-life figures” he explains. “The viewer needs to be able to suspend belief enough, during the film, to believe that the person up there on the screen really is the musician concerned.”

Freddie Mercury (inset) and Sacha Baron Cohen

Having an actor endeavor to emulate an artist’s singing voice is another common obstacle of the music biopic. 2007’s La Vie En Rose saw its star Marion Cotillard receive an Oscar for her depiction of French chanteuse Édith Piaf, despite lip-syncing to other vocalists performing the original songs throughout. In an attempt to profit from his popularity at its peak, rap star Eminem played a character loosely based on himself in 2002’s 8 Mile, eliminating any need to find a performer of similar vocal style. Other techniques include exploiting that most rapidly dying breed – the singing actor. Jamie Foxx put his classical piano training and experience as professional vocalist to good use in becoming the late, great Ray Charles. As well as the plaudits, these films have also received criticism for the glorification of their subjects, something that constantly irks music fans. “I particularly like [biopics] if they’re prepared to admit that the main protagonist was flawed, as in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll or Control,” admits Loben. Sam Ashurst, features editor at Total Film, agrees. “There is a need to balance the inevitable histrionics with quieter moments that emphasise the icon’s basic humanity”. Ashurst goes on to explain that this is key to the success of a music biopic. “It’s why Walk The Line works, but Summer Dreams definitely doesn’t – it reduces The Beach Boys to walking caricatures.” But perhaps that’s the point? The subjects of The Doors and the upcoming Queen film are larger-than-life characters, suited to Hollywood’s exaggerations. “With Baron Cohen it’s doubly risky as it’ll be his first serious role,” points out Ashurst, “It’s a massive risk, but if it works he’ll almost certainly earn a Best Actor Oscar nod.”


Perhaps American TV sitcom 30 Rock has the right approach. A recent episode spoofed the making of a Janis Joplin biopic that hits a number of copyright issues, goes through a series of ludicrous plot changes, and is eventually renamed Jackie Jormp-Jomp. If that’s how it works in reality, we can expect to see Pacino starring as Bill Fletcher anytime now…

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