I just had the rather awful experience of viewing the Johnny Cash bio-flic Walk The Line on DVD. While there were many things that went wrong in this film, like making Johnny Cash out to be simply a drug and alcohol abusing dope with a father hang-up (you feel like yelling at the screen, “Comon, Johnny, get over it! He’s just an old loser anyway, so who cares what he thinks about you!”), by far the worst thing was having to listen to the star, Joaquin Phoenix, butcher one Johnny Cash hit after another. Hearing his co-star, Reese Witherspoon, wreck the June Carter tunes was almost as appalling. What made these actors think  they could let alone should attempt such a thing?

Unfortunately, the answer lies in three decades’ worth of Hollywood bio-flics about pop singers, starting I guess with Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story in 1978. This is not to say that the  stars of that film, Gary Busey, Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith, gave a bad performance as Buddy Holly and  the Crickets. The problem is deeper than that. The issue is not whether or not nor to what extent they sounded like the real Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The point is that  no one could really sound like Buddy Holly but Buddy Holly. And since the recordings that made his voice famous and the picture worth doing in the first place are, by virtue of being recordings, therefore available, why use a substitute? The answer is hubris.

The world is filled with people who can, to some degree or another, sing and often insist on doing so. Tune in thirty seconds or so of American Idol (if you can stand it) and you will be convinced of the truth of that statement. Fact is, we’ve got singers coming out the yazoo. And yet, out of what Dylan aptly called this “rat race choir” only a very few voices stand out, become instantly recognizable and beloved by millions the world over. Why? Because they are special; very special; very, very, special. They speak to us. They have a unique character that makes us care about them and what they are saying. How odd then, that in bio-flic after bio-flic the voices of artists like Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Loretta Lynn and even Ray Charles are rendered by an actor’s studied imitation.

The case of Ray Charles is the oddest of the lot. Now, Jamie Fox’s performance in Taylor Hackford’s 2004 production Ray is extraordinary in many ways. But no voice in the history of sound recording is more unique than that of Ray Charles. Yes, Fox did a good impression of Ray’s voice. To me he was good enough to land a job in Vegas doing a fake Ray Charles act in a revue with a fake Elvis and a fake Christina Aguilera, which to be perfect would have to be performed in the  fake Eiffel Tower at the  fake Paris. But once again let me point out the obvious: Ray Charles was a recording artist. His voice made him famous and is readily available. Why not use it? The reason has nothing to do with money.

To be  sure, it costs money to license the voice of Ray Charles, Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash for use in films. But with the cost of the average studio feature now hovering at about one hundred million dollars when you include  ads and prints, this surely is insignificant. No, the reason that the producers and directors of such bio-flics don’t use the real famous and inimitable voices of their subjects isn’t money. It’s hubris; the hubris of the stars themselves.

Today’s stars live in a world remote from the rest of us, a cloistered world where their every whim is fulfilled instantly by a small army of lackies in a rarified atmosphere of constant ego-stroking and gratification. After a few years of this it becomes almost impossible for them to portray ordinary people. To be convincing at all, the characters they portray must be freaks of one  sort or another: serial killers, terrorists, aliens or best of all, celebrities. Hence the enduring popularity of the pop-singer bio-flic in Hollywood.

 Oh yes, today’s stars can relate all too easily to pill-popping, hard-drinking, re-hab undergoing singers. And who in Hollywood is going to point out to these egomaniacs that they’ll never sing half as well as Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly or Ray Charles? In a world that values the fake over  the original, I guess the answer is no one.


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