Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Walk the Ray
Walk the Line is a fine movie. I recommend it. Joaquin Phoenix is uncanny, and Reese Witherspoon—whom, I confess, I’ve never really liked before now—is just remarkable, bringing a subtle, bitter edge to her otherwise chirpy portrayal of June Carter.
But here’s the thing. I also liked Ray. Jamie Foxx was uncanny, and Regina King was remarkable. For that matter, I liked Coal Miner’s Daughter way back in 1980. Sissy Spacek was uncanny, and Levon Helm was remarkable. You get the idea.
Does anyone else have the sense that these music biopics have gotten a bit . . . um . . . formulaic? The Walk the Line / Ray similarities are, admittedly, a bit strange: flashback to rural poverty and the life-scarring Death of the Brother. Lifelong struggles with drugs and a stripped-down narrative of the Other Woman. But even biopics about figures whose lives weren’t quite so similar as those of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash seem to me to be built on the same premise: a string of highlights and low points (ending on the former), held together (or not held together) by the lead’s ability to inhabit the body and soul of the subject. Extra bonus points are awarded for people who do their own singing, like Spacek or Gary Busey in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, or who know a thing or two about their instrument, like Foxx in Ray. Audience responses to the genre of the biopic, accordingly, seem to hinge almost entirely on assessments of the performance of one or two lead actors and actresses: hence Ray, Walk the Line, and Buddy Holly draw raves, Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It and Forest Whitaker in Bird get mixed reviews, and Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea and Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire! wind up very quickly in the 99-cent bin. And I won’t even bother to dismiss Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, because (for whatever reason) she only appeared in ten minutes of that film, the rest of which was devoted to Charlie (and might as well have been called Patsy Cline: Charlie’s Story).
Which brings up an ancillary point. Because most of the challenge of the biopic lies in the casting, for obvious reasons, with films like Walk the Line, you’ve got a curious intertextual phenomenon going on: Waylon Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis is far more convincing than Dennis Quaid’s, which makes it look almost as if Walk the Line is out-Jerry Lee-ing Jerry Lee’s own biopic, in a weirdly Jerry Lee kind of way.
Still, I have to admit that I would have paid good money (not counterfeit money!) fifteen years ago to see Denzel in What’s Going On? The Story of Marvin Gaye. Hey! When is someone going to get to work on that film anyway?
Oh, I almost forgot. I really liked Pollock. Ed Harris was uncanny, and Marcia Gay Harden was remarkable.