The internet was abuzz last week as it was announced that Selena Gomez would play Linda Ronstadt in an upcoming biopic of the country-rock singer’s life, to be directed by David O. Russell.
Gomez had sent rumours flying after posting an earlier Instagram story of Ronstadt’s memoir Simple Dreams, with a confirmation of the casting coming not long after.
Already there’s chatter online about whether Gomez is the right person to take on the role. Much of that discussion centers around how well Gomez will take on Linda’s vocals. Will Gomez, whose singing is soft and delicate, nail Ronstadt’s clear, powerful voice?
Perhaps the more important question to ask is, does it really matter?
There are notable similarities in the way Gomez and Ronstadt's lives and careers have transpired so far. Both are of Mexican descent through their paternal line. Both have suffered different, though well documented, long term health conditions which have impacted their careers – Selena with lupus and Linda with a brain condition that has taken away her ability to sing.
As young women in the public eye, both have endured relentless scrutiny of their personal lives, though for Linda this mercifully happened before the age of instant access to celebrities via social media. As successful singers, both will have known the dark and often predatory side of the music industry, one that's keen to capitalise on its stars.
There’s also no doubting their physical commonalities, with each bearing strikingly similar, baby-faced features. In that sense, Gomez is a fitting choice, particularly given the laser focus of recent biopics on how well an actor can do an impression of the musician they’re playing and, crucially, whether it sets them up for awards success.
Where once it was war films and period pieces that marketed themselves as the natural Oscar contenders, recent on-screen depictions - including Austin Butler’s Elvis, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, Taron Egerton’s Elton and Jennifer Hudson’s Aretha - have sought acclaim based on how well talent imitates talent, often overshadowing and sometimes actively relying on it to make up for issues with the screenplay. It’s an approach with mixed results, with only Rami managing to bag the Oscar.
So, where does hyper-realistic biopic casting fall ethically?
It is not true that a good impression makes a good movie. At not far off 3 hours long, Butler’s Elvis may have been impressive but the discourse around the film, including the actor's inability to shake off the famous accent months after filming had concluded, inescapably hooked the viewer’s eye on how much he looked or sounded like 'The King' at any given point in the film, barring complete immersion in the story.
It’s a telling legacy that much of the discussion around Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla has now focused on comparing Jacob Elordi’s portrayal of Presley with Butler’s. This, despite the fact that that the film lays bare a usually overlooked and troubling side of Elvis and the 14 year old girl he courted, a topic that many haven’t dared touch.
Biopics must always tread the line of moral ambiguity. They may be inspired by reality but they are all, at least in part, fictitious. They need to fabricate some details, and lose some, in the transition to the big screen. Timelines will have to be fudged, dialogue created, relationships reimagined, important characters set aside or cast out all-together.
So is it even ethical to focus on hyper-realism in the actor’s portrayal? In a world of deepfakes, holograms and AI-generated songs by deceased singers, do films have a greater responsibility in 2024 to draw a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s not? It’s a question faced by other pieces of entertainment, such as Netflix’s The Crown, which faced criticism for not making clear that some of its content is historically inaccurate.
Take country’s other great imitators, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in Walk The Line and Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Yes, nailing the bones of the character is important. But when you listen to Joaquin’s rendition of Folsom Prison Blues, it’s clearly him singing and not Cash. As Director James Mangold said, “if somebody wants to hear a Johnny Cash record they can go and buy one”. Phoenix himself admitted that he doesn’t listen to many Johnny Cash records. Given the film’s various creative stretches with the truth, including overstating Cash’s addiction issues and leaning perhaps too heavily into his difficult relationship with his father, it’s the correct choice to draw a clear line between actor and subject.
Sissy Spacek’s rendition of Loretta Lynn’s vocals is more eerily true to its source material, but the nature of the historical inaccuracies here require less sensitive handling, specifically in the overstatement of how close she was to Patsy Cline. There’s also the inescapable visual uniqueness of Spacek. Her piercing blue eyes and angular, handdrawn face remain her own and not Lynn’s.
Gomez and Ronstadt's discographies certainly do not paint them as similar vocalists. But biopics are not tribute acts, nor documentaries. In fact, a very good documentary about Linda’s life already exists, 2019’s Linda Ronstadt: The Sound Of My Life. Or, like Gomez, you could pick up a copy of Simple Dreams.
Given Ronstadt’s truly rock and roll origin story as a female singer who came up through the folk scene of the 70s, sold more than 100 million records, toured with the Doors and had a romance with George Lucas, Gomez’s vocals are not what audiences should be coming to a Linda Ronstadt biopic for.
While few details are available yet about the film, we know that Ronstadt’s manager, John Boylan, has signed on to co-produce. What we do know is that Linda does not have the name recognition she deserves at a mass cultural level. Without a star vehicle like Gomez attached, a Ronstadt biopic would likely be seen only by music fans and cinema buffs.
We can only hope that, with the involvement of Linda’s team and Gomez’s star power, the story of one of our greatest, and unfairly overlooked, female vocalists will finally be heard around the world. Let's just remember to take not just our popcorn, but also the truth, with a pinch of cinematic salt.