The movie “Miles Ahead” arrives in Washington theaters this weekend, marking the end of the beginning of a mini-onslaught of musical biopics. “Miles Ahead,” in which Don Cheadle plays Miles Davis during a pivotal moment in his career, joins “I Saw the Light,” about Hank Williams, and “Born to Be Blue,” about Chet Baker (and featuring a fictionalized Miles Davis cameo). Over the next few weeks, audiences will finally get a chance to see Zoe Saldana in her controversial portrayal of Nina Simone; they will also behold Michael Shannon — decked out in black wig, sideburns, velvet suits and custom aviator shades — playing perhaps the most imitated man of all time in the pop-history curio “Elvis & Nixon.”
Each in its own way, these movies illustrate the perils, pitfalls and cathartic potential of musical biopics — which occupy a secure place in American cinema, despite going so wrong, so often. The attraction of these projects is understandable: Audiences are drawn to their familiar, hit-heavy soundtracks, and they give actors a chance to prove their virtuosity by assuming the identities of revered public figures — an audience-pleasing feat that often, if not always, results in an Oscar nomination.
To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, no one ever went broke overestimating the combined pull of generational nostalgia, actorly vanity and the tried-and-true formula of a genius brought to an early demise by intractable demons — or, better yet, one who comes back from rock bottom in high-note-hitting triumph. Except, of course, when they did. (We’re looking at you, “Jersey Boys.”)
The musical biopic has become such a cliche-riddled genre that it’s already been suitably parodied, in the 2007 comedy “Walk Hard,” in which John C. Reilly plays Dewey Cox, a singer who falls prey to the usual rock-star depredations of drugs, fame and petulant self-indulgence. “Walk Hard” goes broad in its comedy, but it aptly calls out what has become the audience’s morbid fascination with watching talent and promise being summarily extinguished: In “I Saw the Light,” Tom Hiddleston’s able portrayal of country singer Hank Williams is all but swamped in a drab, “Behind the Music”-like rehash of Williams’s history of alcoholism, drug abuse and marriage troubles. Viewers may leave the film impressed with Hiddleston’s physical resemblance to Williams, but with no deeper perception of what made his writing and singing so achingly powerful.
Miles Davis and Chet Baker fare better in “Miles Ahead” and “Born to Be Blue,” each of which focuses on fallow periods in the musicians’ lives. Both movies revert to their share of lurid scenes of addiction and artistic self-destruction, and both liberally allow for fictional characters and situations. But Cheadle and Hawke deliver sensitive, alert performances that don’t submerge the actors’ egos as much as allow them to coexist with those of the men they’re playing. Even behind the cardinal physical characteristics — Davis’s late-era Jheri curls and signature vocal rasp, Baker’s missing tooth and slicked-back hair — the actors are visible, creating a meditation on a life, rather than its waxwork, animatronic reenactment.
Cheadle and Hawke exemplify what distinguishes a performance that has a higher degree of difficulty, if only because it depends on so many contradictory impulses converging. For the past 75 years, since Marlon Brando introduced the Method to generations of acting students, psychological realism and raw emotional expression have been the prime goal of acting for the camera. In that context, words such as “imitation” or “impression” became insults, equated with empty mannerism and inauthentic artifice.
But when an actor plays a familiar cultural figure, some degree of impersonation isn’t just necessary — it’s welcome. For viewers to become immersed in the reality being portrayed on screen, the actor must deliver a carefully calibrated collection of externals — how the person they’re playing looks, walks and talks — and psychological internals, a subtle mix of playacting and psychic merging. The result, at its best, is not only an uncanny depiction of someone audience members instantly recognize and accept as the person in question, but also represents a new creation, a third character born of the actor’s own emotional truth and transparency. When a performance is constructed merely of externals, however accomplished, it becomes an exercise in camp: Rather than new or meaningful insight into the person being portrayed, the audience gets the relatively cheap pleasure of novelty and technical achievement — the “trick” of the portrayal itself. When the actor and character mesh in more complex, unexpected ways, the resulting creation becomes both an entertaining cultural artifact and an edifying work of art.
Sissy Spacek achieved that communion in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” in which she delivered a seamless portrayal of Loretta Lynn; so did Jennifer Lopez in “Selena,” Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” Chad Boseman in “Get on Up,” André Benjamin in “All Is by My Side” and the extraordinary ensemble cast of “Straight Outta Compton.” All of those actors merged with the larger-than-life artists they portrayed, offering the audience more than just an impressive display of I-can-do-that chops. One need only compare them with Kevin Spacey’s spot-on but superficial portrayal of Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea,” or Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart doing little more than posing in shag haircuts in “The Runaways,” to understand the difference between the shallows of mere mimicry and the far more demanding depths of honest characterization.
Both Cheadle and Hawke achieve the latter in “Miles Ahead” and “Born to Be Blue”; Hiddleston probably would have, if he’d been in a smarter, more nuanced movie. Unfortunately, “I Saw the Light” commits the same brand of plodding literalism that has made the musical biopic such a dreaded prospect in recent years — especially as the ’60s generation processes its impending mortality by memorializing its most famous cultural heroes on screen. The best of such cinematic monuments have banished the distraction of mimicry altogether: Witness Cate Blanchett’s sly, androgynous turn as Bob Dylan in the appropriately enigmatic, audaciously experimental biopic “I’m Not There.” Or Paul Dano and John Cusack’s intriguing dual performance as Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy” — with Dano bearing an eerie physical and vocal resemblance to the real-life subject; Cusack not at all. Both those films, it bears noting, were written by Oren Moverman, who should be put in permanent charge of Hollywood’s Department of Boomer-Idol Commemoration.
Moverman knows what anyone preparing to write, direct or act in a biopic needs to learn: When it comes to our most cherished icons, oblique is better than straight on. Characterization surpasses caricature. Interpretation transcends impersonation. The more abstract the aesthetic choices — the more the audience is encouraged to acknowledge rather than ignore the gap between performer and subject — the better the chances that a movie will avoid Wiki-ready narratives and “Walk Hard”-worthy cliches and become a thoughtful, densely layered, vividly specific portrait. After all, the artists these biopics celebrate were never content with on-the-nose homages to their influences. They re-imagined the nose, replaced it or got rid of it altogether, according to their own inimitable terms.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed to P.T. Barnum a remark made by H.L. Mencken.