Some new musical films, including Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, feature vocal performances enhanced with real-life stars’ voices. But aren’t these movies all about singing?
Indeed, Butler is remarkable throughout, despite the distractions created by the collision between Luhrmann’s notoriously garish all-in-the-sink style – as found elsewhere in grandiose literary works by Shakespeare (the masterful Romeo + Juliet (1997)) to F Scott Fitzgerald (2013). The Great Gatsby) – and his embrace of CGI. It’s during the performance segments, set in Las Vegas, that the film’s lead man is beaming at his brightest, sweating and leaving it all like the man himself on stage.
Austin Butler makes his debut Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s latest biopic, the girls in the audience don’t understand what they’re feeling. With a thrust of his hips, Elvis conjures up in them something they have never felt before; something that feels dangerous, sexual, and liberating. Their eyes widen like plates, and then their mouths scream for him. It’s thanks to Butler’s performance — the famous protruding knees, pursed lip and vocal growl — that the moment is funny but also believable.
Clad in his huge collared regalia, Butler evokes the true spirit of Elvis: his frenetic quirks, his obvious insatiable yearning for the audience’s love, his innate, irresistible sexuality. Above all, Butler has Elvis’ voice under control – every song has exactly the right tone and timbre, always in the spectrum between energetic bite and shattering suppleness.
Disappointingly, the reason for this is that the vocals used are at least partly by Elvis. In conversation with United States today, Butler clarified that the vocals we hear in the film are a “mixture of me and Elvis,” although “all the ’50s stuff” (like the early performance scene I referenced earlier) is Butler’s voice alone , as the original recordings were not of sufficient quality to be used in the film. “Especially on ‘Suspicious Minds,’ I can’t tell when my voice ends and his begins,” Butler said. The audience doesn’t seem to be able to either.
This “blending” technique was also used in Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 Freddie Mercury biopic that starred Rami Malek as the Queen frontman in an Oscar-winning role. In this case, the vocals heard in the film were a mix of Malek’s, Mercury’s own and those of Canadian singer Mark Martel, known for the similarity in his voice to Mercury’s. This blended approach adds some of the actor’s own timbre to the recording to make it feel like it’s truly themselves, while maintaining the ultimate authenticity of the original performer.
Corresponding elvis Composer Elliott Wheeler, the mix was created by “Slicing [parts of] Austin’s performance.” Butler played the songs on stage, and then Elvis’s vocals were mixed in again. “We used a lot of breaths, grunts and body movements that are Austin, and we switched back to Elvis,” Wheeler said.
It’s a shame considering Butler’s voice is so good in the scenes where we only hear him, but what Wheeler created was a mix of the dynamic inherent in the live show with the added Realism of Elvis’ voice.
It’s a major technological advance, but is it a cop out? Are blended vocals in biopics cheating—or are they a useful tool for creating a realistic portrayal of an artist that fully engages audiences rather than alienates them?
The quality of a biopic depends on the success or failure of the central performance, so relying on the actual voice of the person being impersonated, or indeed another performer, feels a little inauthentic – and leaves the audience wanting.
This is especially true if in the past some actors to have Mastered the knack of her character’s vocal mannerisms: Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are electrifying in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the line (in which they played Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, learned their instruments, and sang their music on the soundtrack), while Renée Zellweger gave one of the best performances of her career in 2019 as Judy Garland judy. In 2019 rocket ManTaron Egerton sang Elton John’s vocals himself, as did Andra Day in her Oscar-nominated performance as Billie Holliday in The United States vs. Billie Holliday in 2021.
Biopics expert Professor Deborah Cartmell of De Montfort University’s Department of English and its Center for Adaptation Studies notes that regardless of what you think of it, mixing vocals is “an attempt to achieve more veracity so that you believe that the actor is actually singing”.
She points out that biopics are “primarily actor films and often avenues for best actor” because critics and viewers are particularly struck by performances that feel like accurate interpretations of characters we’re already familiar with.
Biopics in general, says Cartmell, “are popular with audiences, possibly because of a ‘feel good’ factor. They’re formulaic, so the audience knows what to expect.” Also, “Biopics of bands and musicians already have a following, so you’re guaranteed a good chunk of the audience, even if you get viewers who are disappointed with the films, who are still loyal to the topic and that’s why they will go,” she says. “Usually a biopic revolves around a pivotal moment, like the performance of Live Aid in Bohemian Rhapsodywhich, even if not consistent with the ‘real’, gives the audience a nostalgic opportunity to ‘relive’ a past event.”
Due to their popularity, therefore, biopics have become catnip for board awards. In the past five years at the Oscars, biopics have garnered 10 Best Actor nominations and three winners, as well as 12 Best Actress nominations and three other winners. In the past three years, there have been two prizewinners for singer biopics (Zellweger in the 2019s judy and Jessica Chastain as televangelist Tammy Faye Messner in Tammy Faye’s eyes (2021); like Zellweger, Chastain sang her own part).
It doesn’t seem too important to the awarding bodies whether or not the actor sang in his role: it’s in defense of blended vocals that many actors who have won or been nominated for Oscars for their biopic performances in simply lip-synced to recordings by the original artist or even recordings by other artists in the past.
In 2004, Jamie Foxx starred in Ray Charles. beam, lip-synched to recordings of Charles (and won the Academy Award for Best Actor); 2020 Viola Davis is nominated for best actress Ma Rainey’s black butt Davis featured one track while the rest of Ma Rainey’s work was performed by singer Maxalyn Lewis, who studied Davis’ movements and cadence as she performed the songs herself, and impressively recorded Ma Rainey’s vocals to work with them retrospectively.
So it’s not just about the voice – and many experts agree that it’s the ultimate experience of the films that matters, not the details of the singing. Christina Neuland, ILeading Film Critic of , tells me, “If a technique can help the actor adapt their voice to these legendary voices and bring realism to the role – especially when they commit to the role physically and in every other way – I see.” no particular harm in it.” And using your own voice doesn’t always pay off (Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison into The Doors (1991), for example, sang the role, but it wasn’t a particularly accurate performance). “It’s harrowing to see a performance in a film where everything else seems to be just right, but then it is [the actors] open their mouths to sing, and those familiar songs don’t sound right,” she says.
Journalist and critic Simran Hans says, “Technical precision is just one aspect of a compelling performance that hopefully reveals something about the artist an actor is playing. I always felt it was more about embodying an artist’s sensibility — that’s why Beyoncé isn’t a convincing Etta James Cadillac records, not because she can’t do the voice (although she can’t), but rather because she wasn’t able to telegraph the right kind of grit or soulfulness. Billie Holiday impression of Diana Ross in Lady sings the blues doesn’t sound exactly like her, but she nails the attitude and physicality.”
For Hans when it comes to it elvis In particular, “perhaps complicating things even more is the fact that this is a Baz Luhrmann film — he’s a director who doesn’t particularly care about realism or authenticity,” she says. “I wasn’t really thinking about how Austin Butler sounds in the music scene, but how he moves or what kind of sexuality he’s projecting, which seemed more important to me.”
Hans also points out that actors use all sorts of resources – from makeup to movement trainers – to transform themselves into another person. “If [actors] having technical help through blended vocals, is it that different than prosthetics or costumes? I think there’s a certain kind of attraction that’s really important in portraying a famous person – if the actor has that, the voice is just the icing on the cake.” We’re not just fascinated by Elvis because of his voice, after all – a A good biopic should make the viewer feel and remember the subject, not just imitate it.
But the voice is what endures of an artist long after they’re gone – the recordings remain, repeated and dearly loved: it’s the part of them fans know best. If the purpose of a biopic is to shed new light on a subject, then most important of all is missing in films in which an actor doesn’t attempt to take on a star’s voice—so often its essence.