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When actors play musicians


Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley? Fans won't be happy, says Gillian Orr

Poor Penn Badgley. Ever since it was announced that the actor, best known for playing Dan Humphrey in Gossip Girl, would be portraying the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley in an upcoming film, a barrage of protest has appeared online, with a number of music fans questioning the casting.

In the trashy teen show, the 24-year-old Badgley hasn't exactly had to stretch himself. Some supporters of Buckley are demanding to know how Badgley is qualified to play the revered, intense musician, who drowned tragically in 1997 at the age of 30. A typical remark on internet comment boards is that Buckley would be "rolling over in his grave" at the news.

Presumably, the fact that Badgley is an actor who sings and plays guitar is not good enough for many Buckley fans. Aware that he was getting a beating on the blogs, Badgley released a statement assuring his commitment. "To play a man who was singularly gifted as an artist, greatly misunderstood and mythologised as a human being... it's something very special and sacred. I'm going to give all I can to this project," he insisted. Entitled Greetings from Tim Buckley, the film is said to focus on the relationship between Jeff and his father, the folk singer Tim, whom he met only once.

You can see why musicians' lives make great fodder for film: fame, excess, loneliness and substance-abuse issues are useful narrative arcs. Plus, an artist's fan base equals good news for the box office. But it's a brave person who takes on the role of a much-loved musician. Not only is the physical presence of these icons well known, but the scale of their mythology is intimidating. One reason Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, in which six actors play different parts of Dylan's persona, worked so well was because it played on Dylan's mythologising, and found an original way to take on such an admired figure.

Badgley's casting is hardly the first time the public has greeted news of a musical biopic with scepticism and scorn. It seems our musical heroes are so precious to us, we fear that a high-profile re-enactment of their life would fail to do justice to their talent or that their portrayal would be less than favourable.

Yet we rarely are concerned when other heroes – literary, sporting, political – are committed to celluloid. What is it about musical biopics that brings out our protective sides to such a degree? You only had to see the collective sigh of relief from Nirvana fans when Courtney Love rubbished reports that Twilight's Robert Pattinson was in talks to play Kurt Cobain. Often fans can't disassociate the actor from the weight of their preconceived Hollywood status and former roles.

So, Queen aficionados nervously await Sacha Baron Cohen's take on Freddie Mercury next year in A Kind of Magic, encouragingly scripted by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). Flower children will eagerly anticipate Amy Adams's Janis Joplin in the much-delayed Get It While You Can. Reports that Kirsten Dunst is to play Blondie's Debbie Harry have been around for a few years, but it is believed the project is still going ahead. Crucially, Harry is still alive and musical biopics tend to focus on artists who are dead, something that, as Badgley is aware, heightens expectations attached to the film. "It's a massive undertaking playing anyone who is real; furthermore, someone who has passed," he told New York magazine.

Such is the loyalty of music fans that actors should approach such projects with extreme caution. On the upside, if you take a look at some of the big biopics the Academy has always been generous at Oscar time towards actors taking on troubled musicians – addictions, flaws, egos and all.

Here are some of the most controversial portrayals.

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett The Runaways (2010)

Fans of the 1970s teen-rock band were not convinced that Kristen Stewart, who is most famous for playing Bella in the soppy Twilight series, would have what it takes to play the "Queen of Rock'n'Roll". The "Bad Reputation" singer was a formidable character, and The Runaways changed how the public perceived girl bands. As Stewart noted at the time, "They were the first girls to ever play aggressive, sexual assertive rock'n'roll." Jett was actively involved in the project and Stewart's performance ended up being the best thing about the film, which many accused of being far too tame.

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis Control (2007)

Joy Division fans are famously ardent in their affection towards the band's frontman, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. When it was announced that a completely unknown actor with little previous experience was to play Ian Curtis, fans expressed concern that Sam Riley would not have the necessary tools to bring to life such a complicated and fragile artist. They needn't have worried: Riley was showered with best newcomer awards.

Michael Pitt as "Blake" (Kurt Cobain) Last Days (2005)

Such is Kurt Cobain's mythology, it seems Nirvana devotees would fail to ever think anyone capable of capturing the frontman's troubled character. Reaction was mixed when Michael Pitt was cast in the fictionalised account of Cobain's final moments. Here was an actor who had launched his career in the less-than-cool Dawson's Creek but had slightly redeemed himself in more gritty fare such as The Dreamers. Fans were less than pleased with the results: the experimental film was blasted for being "boring", with Pitt's isolated grunge icon staggering around pointlessly for most of the duration.

Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison The Doors (1991)

When Val Kilmer was cast in Oliver Stone's biopic, most fans of "The Lizard King" were on Kilmer's side for no other reason than their remarkable physical similarity. While the film has gone on to be a cult classic, most die-hard fans are horrified at Kilmer's critical portrayal of Jim Morrison, claiming it showed him to be a pretentious, out-of-control sociopath. Q magazine remarked that, "few people emerged from seeing [the film] having raised their opinions of that band and especially its singer, Jim Morrison."

Barbie as Karen Carpenter Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

Before he directed his Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There, Todd Haynes made this rather bizarre film about the life and death of The Carpenters singer. Not only did the director not seek permission to use any of the official music, but he decided against using actors, replacing all the key figures in this extremely tragic tale with modified Barbie figures and voiceovers, angering many fans in the process.

Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious Sid and Nancy (1986)

Based on the destructive and tragic relationship between the Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, Sid and Nancy begins in 1978 with Sid's arrest for Nancy's murder in the Chelsea Hotel, before skipping back a year to when the first couple of punk rock met in London. Although Gary Oldman was praised by critics, many fans of the band, as well as their lead singer, John Lydon, attacked the film, claiming it to be an inaccurate representation of the troubled bassist. When asked if the movie got anything right, Lydon is said to have replied, "Maybe the name Sid."