At the end of The Jolson Story (1946), Evelyn Keyes, playing his wife, walks out on Al Jolson, telling his manager, ”Steve, when he gets home nights after the show, don’t let him sing too long.” Jolson, you see, is a songaholic. He breaks into show business after he breaks into song from the audience. He puts on a drunken minstrel’s blackface to show off his pipes. He gives encore after encore to swooning audiences. He even gets out of his seat to sing during his wife’s own show. No wonder she leaves him: He just can’t stop. And neither can Hollywood. Its fondness for pop singers began with the very first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Jolson himself. In the years since, a chorus of real-life singers have inspired movies — some great, some wretched — and on a fairly regular basis, the thespians who played the thrushes have found themselves in contention for an Oscar. Jamie Foxx (Ray) is just the latest in a noteworthy line that stretches back to Luise Rainer, who played a singer named Anna Held in 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld.
And consider this: There are people who still wonder why Doris Day didn’t get a nod for her rendering of Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me, and you could argue that Val Kilmer, for his Jim Morrison in The Doors, and Lou Diamond Phillips, for his Ritchie Valens in La Bamba, had legitimate shots at nominations. But by and large, playing a singer is a damn good way to get inside that envelope.
There are many reasons for Hollywood’s fascination with pop singers, chief among them their commercial appeal: The people who buy records are the same people who buy tickets. The troubled backstories that singers often bring to the microphone can pull an audience through a picture. Music is also a very effective means of transportation back to a certain time and place. And, as Jolson proved, everybody loves an encore.
But this genre (the musibiopic? the biopicical?) also raises a few questions. Should an actor synch or sing? Whose life is it anyway, the singer’s or the screenwriter’s? What’s the basic difference between an actor and a singer?
If you’re looking for a guide, they don’t come much more qualified than Steve Blauner. He was the manager played by John Goodman in Beyond the Sea, but more than being Bobby Darin’s aide de pop, Blauner went on to cofound the company behind such seminal films as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. He had been trying to make a movie about Darin since 1988, to no avail and with much frustration. When Kevin Spacey approached him a few years ago about cooperating, Blauner, now 71, enlisted Bobby’s son, Dodd Darin, and went so far as to dust off the singer’s original arrangements that were in a warehouse outside of Los Angeles. And he has no regrets. ”People who knew nothing about Bobby Darin now know at least a little about him.”
”Hello, Flo…. Yes, yes, Anna…. I could not help but call on you and congratulate you…. Wonderful, Flo, never better in my whole life…. It’s all so wonderful, and I’m so happy…. I hope you are happy, too.”