Moving Pictures
Jul 21, 2010, 06:56AM

The problem with Hollywood rock biopics

Why does portraying rock stars on film almost never work?

Be truthful, now: Does the idea of a feature film with an actor impersonating Kurt Cobain excite you? Are you abuzz at the prospect of noted boozy broad Amy Adams playing Janis Joplin onscreen?

No? Why not? Is the disconnect between actor and singer too great? Does the execution of the performance scenes—either realized with the actor lip-syncing to the original recording, or belting it out in his/her best Rich Little impersonation—come off as strained? Is it impossible to buy someone you’ve seen in other roles playing a music icon? Or do you prefer to simply listen to the music and make up your own images?

Whatever the case, studios and producers continue to try and cross the great divide between music and film, usually to the benefit of neither.

Adams was recently announced as the lead in an untitled Joplin biography; over the years, everyone from Renee Zellweger and Brittany Murphy to Melissa Etheridge and Courtney Love have purportedly been attached to such a project. (Indie movie and She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel is reportedly starring in The Gospel According to Janis, due in 2012.)

Meanwhile, Oren Moverman, who co-wrote Todd Haynes’ multi-faceted Dylan biopic I’m Not There, is moving ahead with what he calls a “raw and chaotic” Cobain biopic, based in part of Charles Cross’ Heavier Than Heaven biography and exec produced by Love. “It’s more linear than I'm Not There; it’ll take you from A to Z,” Moverman says.

Much to Nirvana fans’ relief, Twilight stud puppet Robert Pattinson won’t be playing Cobain, although he and Love have been taking potshots at each other ever since he expressed interest several months ago. “You see all these comments, like from Courtney Love, saying ‘What the fuck! He's totally wrong for it’,” Pattinson told Spin. “And I’m like, ‘I fucking said no, you dick!’ I didn’t get offered it. For one thing, I’m too tall, and I can’t sing like him, I’m nothing like him! It’s ridiculous.”

While the Moverman project may sound promising—he also directed last year’s well-received The Messenger—it’ll all come down to the casting…and that’s where it may well fall apart. The believable rock biopics can still be pretty much counted on one hand, not a very high batting average.

Excluding those films where performers essentially play themselves—Eminem in 8 Mile, Prince in Purple Rain—I’d nominate the following as rock biopics that work on most levels: The Buddy Holly Story; La Bamba; Ray (despite the predictable storyline); 24 Hour Party People; and the fictionalized otherness of Gus van Sant’s Last Days and Haynes’ I’m Not There and Velvet Goldmine.

Anton Corbijn’s well-received Joy Division bio Control did have a stirring lead performance by Sam Riley, but fell short of being as dramatically impactful as Grant Gee’s nearly simultaneously released Joy Division documentary. I also liked Oliver Stone’s The Doors more than most people, thanks more to Val Kilmer’s disappearance into Jim Morrison than Stone’s usual preoccupations and tricks.

I admire Sid & Nancy more than I enjoy it; Gary Oldman’s simply wrong for Sid, and there’s always that utterly flat-footed guy trying to be Johnny Rotten in the background to further distract; Walk the Line could have been a TV movie; The Runaways was misbegotten from the start; and the various Elvis and Beatles biopics have been forgettable.

Maybe Adams will surprise us all; perhaps Moverman’s got an ace up his sleeve (though Love’s involvement with the project doesn’t bode well). Maybe there’s a Jimi Hendrix or Velvet Underground or Keith Moon biopic on the horizon that can really wow us. (Still unseen on these shores: The well-received British films Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon’s early adulthood, and, more promisingly, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, with Andy “Gollum” Serkis as Ian Dury.)

Alternatively, maybe Hollywood should stick with the likes of Julie & Julia and The Informant! and leave the music to the musicians.

  • Good piece. I agree that Van Kilmer was pretty terrific as Jim Morrison, and was one of Oliver Stone's good films before he went nuts. It's not always necessary to match actor with subject, though: also in a Stone film, Anthony Hopkins was nearly perfect as Nixon, once you got over the fact that they didn't look at all alike.

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