Can We Talk About?…What Becomes a Diva Biopic Most

Clang-clang-clang went the trolley, ding-ding-ding what the hell?

Can We Talk About?… is a weekly series often spotted canoodling with an Oscar-winner.

Biopics are a tricky film genre. They can be great, award-winning fare (your Walk the Lines, your Rays, your Malcolms X) or so terrible they make you hate not only the person they’re about but everyone involved in its god-awful creation (your J. Edgars, your Patch Adamses, and despite Meryl’s Oscar, your Iron Ladies).

It’s perhaps too soon to judge Renée Zellweger’s turn as the legendary Judy Garland in the upcoming Judy, but from the (brief) looks of the new trailer we’re at least leaning towards the better end of the scale.

Still, many a trap befalls the best-intentioned biopic, particularly musical biopics—particularly musical biopics about that most hallowed of cultural institutions: the diva.

So let’s get into some great, and not-so great, diva biopics and see where they went right and where they went horribly wrong.

First, the gold standard of Judy Garland dramatizations, Judy Davis’ 2001 miniseries, Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.

 

I don’t remember much about this except Judy Davis walking around with a broom and dust pan sweeping up all the awards. Legend has it New York’s West Village grew quiet as the gays hunkered down to watch the two-part, four-hour miniseries which traced Garland’s life from beginning to tragic end.

The miniseries is the proper format to attempt retelling a person’s entire life story. When a theatrical film tries to cram the birth-to-death narrative into two hours, it often feels rushed and superficial, as one has to gloss over major moments and combine events to fit within time constraints and serve the narrative.

It’s usually better to focus on one specific moment in time, painting a specific portrait of the subject that sheds light on who they are as a human being and not just this larger-than-life image we’ve come to think we know. Though Selena rightfully made Jennifer Lopez a star, it was criticized for presenting a sanitized version of the slain Tejano superstar’s life.

Though, sometimes, the whole life shebang works, but only when you have an actress who can carry the weight of such an epic performance. Angela Bassett was robbed of an Oscar for her portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do with It—an opinion I will loudly express till the day I die. Her finally fighting back and beating the shit out of Larry Fishburne’s abusive AF Ike Turner was and still is one of the most inspirational moments in film.

Meanwhile, no one had ever heard of Marion Cotillard until she burned a hole in the screen as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, an uneven film anchored by her critically-lauded performance.

Both Bassett and Cotillard lip-synched for their lives, which considering the vocal prowess of their respective divas, was the smart choice. Zellweger, no stranger to an on-key belt—the name on everyone’s lips was, at one point, Roxie Hart—took music lessons and appears to do her own singing in Judy, which I’m on the fence about. Garland was one of the best singers the world has ever known, even near the end of her life, and no matter how much training she’s had, Renée Zellweger is no Judy Garland.

Again, there are exceptions. Sissy Spacek sang all of Loretta Lynch’s hits in Coal Miner’s Daughter, to the tune of an Oscar. And Diana Ross parlayed her portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues into a hit album where she reinterpreted the blues singer’s famous tunes in her own style.

But that was one singer playing another singer, like when Beyoncé played Etta James in Cadillac Records and claimed “At Last” for herself—even performing it at the historic inauguration of Barack Obama.

 

Mmm, remember this? Good times.

I’m not sure how Renée will do as Judy, but I’m willing to give her a shot. Though a part of me still longs for Anne “Step My Pussy Up” Hathaway to make good on her decade-old threats to play La Garland.

If anyone can capture Judy’s manic desire to be loved, while acting the house down, it’s our Annie.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat