Taron Egerton stars as Elton John in this week’s “Rocketman,” which had its debut to favorable reviews at the Cannes Film Festival. The latest musical biopic takes a fantastical look at John’s career, following a trend of the past several decades where actors have gravitated towards portraying pop culture icons and bringing their stories to the big screen.
What’s tricky about judging an actor’s performance playing a well-known figure is distinguishing the line between performance and impersonation; finding the difference between interpretation and impression. Some are able to rise above a karaoke rendition and find depth within the individual they are playing.
Cynics could say it’s an easy play for an Oscar. Many actors have gone on to win the top prize in the industry for portraying musicians. Just this past year, Rami Malek swept the Best Actor category for his performance in “Bohemian Rhapsody” as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The win has its staunch defenders – not limited to major voting bodies – but many felt it was an odd depiction of Mercury and a questionable win on Oscar night. The last person to claim Best Actor for playing a musician was Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” where the actor, too, swept the season for his performance.
In the Best Actress category, Marion Cotillard was the last winner for playing a singer. Her performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” is typically ranked as one of the strongest winners because of the devastating emotion she brought to the role. Just before her, Reese Witherspoon won for playing June Carter Cash in the 2005 film “Walk the Line.”
There are many great performances that have been nominated without winning. One of the all-time great performances is Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Actors who lip sync tend to be “deducted points” by critics but Bassett’s performance rises above any gimmicks.
Playing a music icon doesn’t always result in year-end laurels. Sometimes the film surrounding just falls flat and takes a performance down with it. In recent years, “I Saw the Light,” the story of Hank Williams, came and went without much fanfare. Tom Hiddleston’s performance couldn’t spark any passion like others had before him. On the other side, Chadwick Boseman earned raves for “Get On Up” but his performance as James Brown didn’t capture the attention of awards voters.
Actors take on these roles for a challenge. To disappear into someone as well known as Ray Charles or Elton John is daunting.