Dreamgirls, the barely disguised story of Motown and The Supremes, reaches Britain next week garlanded with Golden Globes, and is seemingly a shoo-in for Oscar success after receiving eight nominations. The fact that Bill Condon's film is a travesty, replacing some of the 20th century's finest music with unmemorable showtunes and hack melodrama, only confirms what a string of recent releases suggest: that current cinema cannot cope with the story of rock and soul music, and seems tame and timid by comparison.
That hasn't stopped an unprecedented rush to convert rock's greats into celluloid. In 2005 alone, there were biopics of Ray Charles,Ray, Johnny Cash,Walk the Line, Brian Jones,Stoned, (indirectly) Kurt Cobain, Last Days, and 50 Cent,Get Rich Or Die Tryin'. This year will also see Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, and Joy Division's Ian Curtis in Control. So far, none has approached the rich, strange magic of their subjects.
Dreamgirls has particular handicaps, based as it is not on The Supremes themselves, but the 1981 Broadway musical of the same name. This allows liberties with Jamie Foxx's portrayal of its equivalent to Motown boss Berry Gordy, showing corruption and tyranny lawyers would otherwise cut. With a grandstanding Eddie Murphy as an amalgam of James Brown and Marvin Gaye, and a timescale reaching from early Sixties Detroit to Seventies Hollywood, Dreamgirls aims for an epic about soul music and the American Dream. Instead, it cheapens Motown's towering musical and social achievements. Musically, soulful delicacy is replaced by Pop Idol bellowing (one of the faux-Supremes, Jennifer Hudson, was an American Idol finalist). Beyoncé's Diana Ross-manqué is meanwhile even blander than Ross herself.
For Dreamgirls to be a serious Oscar contender proves just how little Hollywood understands about pop. More straightforward, recent biopics have failed in other ways. Taylor Hackford's Ray won a deserved Oscar for Foxx's jittery, haunted impression of Charles. Joaquin Phoenix's turn as Cash in James Mangold's Walk the Line, glowering with disgust at himself and the world, and jagged with pill-popping energy, is equally brilliant. Grappling, too, with the religious roots of rock and country, it is perhaps Hollywood's most honourable attempt at such a tale. Still, both films fall well short of their subjects, for two insurmountable reasons. First, Charles and Cash, like most rock legends, lived bigger and nastier lives than current cinema has the scale or appetite for. Each man only has a brief, youthful part of his career examined in these allegedly definitive films. The enduring pain caught in Cash's voice on his last, 2003 recordings, and the failure of Charles' final years, are dodged. The happy endings which soften Hollywood cannot contain the darker truths rock habitually deals in, where debauched decline and death in one's twenties, or long, ragged lifetimes of struggle, are routine. No doubt a James Brown biopic was mooted the day he died. But how would you fit his life - erupting from a slave-like childhood to woman-beating maturity and a drug-addict dotage, while warping 20th century music to his brilliant will - into a film mainstream audiences would watch?
The rock biopic's second flaw is the same one which made Will Smith redundant as Ali: the artists concerned are already easily observable in real, majestic performances. Hollywood may approach the Cash story as it once did Van Gogh's, but even Phoenix is dwarfed by the singer's "Hurt" video, just as the star of John Carpenter's decent Elvis - The Movie (1979), Kurt Russell, shrivels next to the heart-pounding charisma of the real Presley in Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970).
The frequent occasions when actors fall disastrously short of their familiar roles leave other films fatally holed. Leo Gregory is a pallid Brian Jones in Stephen Woolley's Stoned. Dennis Quaid was a similarly callow version of Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire! (1989). Gary Oldman, meanwhile, did well as punk's vacant cipher Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986), but Andrew Schofield's limp Johnny Rotten showed the movement's truly anarchic king could never be captured.
Rotten, instead, offered himself as a charismatic, silhouetted witness in Julien Temple's Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury (2000). The parallel boom in such "rockumentaries" alongside the biopics again shows the latter's limitations. The astonishing D A Pennebaker footage of an unhinged Dylan raging at his Manchester audience in Scorsese's No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, or the on-camera heroin injection of Flaming Lips member Steven Drozd in Bradley Beesley's Fearless Freaks (both 2005), offer raw, truthful moments of rock excess which studio features cannot approach.
One attempt to counter this problem has been hiring stars to play themselves. Eminem soft-pedalled his confrontational persona as his obvious alter ego Jimmy Smith in 8 Mile (2002), sticking to a Rocky-style formula of underdog triumph. Jim Sheridan's Get Rich Or Die Tryin' followed this template for 50 Cent.
Oliver Stone offered another solution in The Doors (1991). He treated Jim Morrison's story as a simultaneous "social history of the US [in] the late Sixties", and as a "metaphorical film ... driven by the songs", where, in his characters' words, rock equates directly with "myths" and "death". Thus, Val Kilmer's Morrison becomes a shamanic ghost, and The Doors' concerts become apocalyptic equivalents to the Vietnam firestorms Stone was experiencing when he first heard tapes of them. Along with Gary Busey's driven, played-live teenage riots in The Buddy Holly Story (1978), they're the only effective Hollywood evocation of a great gig.
Rock cinema's most interesting trend now, though, is to be far more oblique. Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine (1998) prepared the ground. Its suitably lurid attempt at a glam-rock Citizen Kane was wildly inaccurate in its early Seventies detail, and didn't wholly succeed. But Haynes play around the edges of rock myth, rather than the dead-on assaults of a Ray, were promising. Having already subverted the biopic with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), which used a Barbie doll to portray the anorexia-afflicted singer, Haynes is now stalking the biggest game of all. I'm Not There will star seven actors - Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Cate Blanchett among them - as different aspects of Bob Dylan. Dylan, intrigued, has offered his songs. Gus Van Sant's Last Days, meanwhile, avoided the drama of Kurt Cobain's life, instead meditating on Michael Pitt's Cobain-like star as he shuffles towards death. Like Stone, Van Sant was not attempting biography, instead working through themes of his own: the painful memory of his dead friend River Phoenix.
Even Stoned proved successful when not concerning itself with Jones directly, but with Paddy Considine's portrayal of his possible killer, Frank Thorogood. It is the same formula which made Iain Softley's Backbeat (1994) the only bearable version of The Beatles story, by making Lennon's relationship with the group's lost leader Stuart Sutcliffe - dead before anyone had heard of them - its heart.
Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People (2002) combined elements of all these successful approaches in its postmodern memoir of Manchester pop in the Eighties and Nineties. Raw footage and cameos of key scenesters made the accuracy of Sean Harris' Ian Curtis, or John Simm's Bernard Sumner, unimportant. And by centring on Factory Records' Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), and making Manchester figures such as New Order manager Rob Gretton as important as any star, it gives a truer picture of rock's democratic impact than a mere biopic.
Dreamgirls' inexplicably praised mess joins a long tradition of Hollywood rock failures. But, as more eccentric directors schooled in the music's mysteries begin to appear, the future looks suddenly bright.
Dreamgirls is out on February 2Reuse content