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Most modern music is wasted on me. To my ear, too many singers are interchangeable and too often their talents are fine-tuned by computers. The best of the lot have always been those whose voices are so distinct that you recognize them instantly. These are the people who defined eras: Jolson, Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, and Cash. On the female side, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Dolly, and Reba.
When Columbia Pictures decided to make a biopic of Al Jolson in 1945, Jolson was too old (59) to play himself, but there was no doubt he had to sing for himself; the same for Sinatra. When his daughter Tina produced a two-part biopic of her father for CBS in 1992, the soundtrack was pure Frank with the exception of a few early tracks that were damaged from the 78rpm masters. (They were recreated by Canadian actor Tom Burlinson.)
This brings me to two recently released movies, I Am Woman and The United States vs Billie Holiday. Forget all the political aspects of these two projects and concentrate on the talents involved.
Helen Reddy was a real star in the 1970s. She placed eight singles in the number one slot on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, six of them consecutively. Her voice, though, is not heard in the Netflix production, nor is that of the actress that plays her. Instead, it belongs to another Australian, Chelsea Cullen.
Billie Holiday is an altogether different story. She has been portrayed on both film and stage by women with much more vocal talent than she had. Whether it’s Diana Ross, Audra McDonald or the star of the current flick, Andra Day, their voices are much more pleasant than “Lady Day’s.” Don’t get me wrong, Holiday’s voice was distinctive. But in the same way dragging an injured cat on a rope down a gravel road is distinctive. She remains, for me, an unacquired taste.
Still, there are quality recordings of both women so why not use them? If the talent is worth bringing their story to the screen, why not bring as much of the real thing with them?Published in