We have yet to hear from any doubting Thomases stating that Tom Hardy isn’t suitable to play Elton John in a biopic. In fact, there seems to be a rare resounding approval for Hardy playing John in “Rocketman”, despite the actor not looking anywhere similar to the iconic singer. But that’s because Hardy may be one of the most diverse actors of his generation and seems to be as much of a chameleon as Robert De Niro once was in his glory acting years. With some makeup and a John hairpiece, he’ll likely look just like the ostentatious pop legend. But should the transformation also include taking over as singer?
In the world of biopics, there’s nothing more controversial than having an actor merely lip-synch to recordings. For biopics where someone had an overly distinctive voice, it had to be forgiven, even if the lip-synching is so painfully obvious. In fact, an argument could be made that biopics have been lessened because of that lip-synch issue, especially when old recordings are used.
Then we have some of the rare exceptions like Sissy Spacek singing on her own in 1980’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Less remembered from the same film is Beverly D’Angelo who also did her own singing in portraying Patsy Cline. The latter was arguably one of the bravest self-singing performances ever in a biopic considering Cline’s voice is so familiar to generations of people.
Only Reese Witherspoon was brave enough to take on June Carter Cash’s singing in “Walk the Line”, even if Cash’s voice wasn’t distinctive enough to make much comparison. It’s the male side of things where we see the most successful singing attempts to a point of being nearly identical. Joaquin Phoenix’s ability to sing like Johnny Cash might be one of the greatest examples in film history if not Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles in “Ray.”
When it comes to Elton John, he’s not that hard to impersonate thanks to his vocal cadence not requiring a classically trained voice. That’s why it’s beneficial if Tom Hardy does John’s voice in the biopic for the sake of getting away from lip-synching to the real Elton. However, with reports John is re-recording many of his classic hits for the film, it seems lip-synching may rear its ugly mouth again.
If anything, having a subject of a biopic who’s still alive re-recording their classic hits is worse when you consider how different they sound being 40 years older. We have to hope John doesn’t sing his first hits the way he sounds now with his voice two octaves lower. Going this route gives real danger to this project joining the list of contrived biopics we don’t want to see again.
The best route biopics of musicians can take now is to let the actor take over and put their own literal voice to the subject for believability. No matter how accurate they are mouthing to a recording, lip-synching is almost always easy to scope out and easy to ruin the believable atmosphere. Yet, with actors evolving with skills not seen before, it shouldn’t be challenging to let them shape their voices into sounding like the subject.
They’d also be at a better advantage not having the subject alive where ego otherwise gets in the way to make the biopic fully contrived.