Spike Lee has told MTV that he wants to use recordings of James Brown for the musical moments in his upcoming biopic of the late, great Godfather of Soul. Wesley Snipes, of whom Lee says “He’s my man”, will be left to just lip-sync and mimic the dance moves.

Fair enough. And that’s all the news there really is to this, the rest is just “context and opinion”, the stuff of the blogger. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s a long, long history of people syncing to other people’s voices in film – most similarly to this, I suppose, in Ray where Jamie Foxx does sing a couple of the numbers himself, but just mouths along to original recordings for the most of them. Most often it has happened in musicals, with Marni Nixon alone dubbing Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Margaret O’Brien in The Secret Garden and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Not for nothing was Nixon dubbed “The Voice of Hollywood” (pun intended).

Lately, however, I’ve seen this be dubbing convention knocked over quite spectacularly by Julie Taymor’s sublime ubermusical, Across the Universe. For my money the best film of the 21st century, amongst Universe‘s many accomplishments are a series of vocal performances that the cast recorded live, during the take. About 90% of the singing is recorded this way, with various technical considerations (slow motion, loud effects on set) costing the other 10%. I don’t think any musical director need ever go back to the old way now. Some scenes in Universe achieve an incredibly sense of immediacy from this technique and they all benefit from an organic naturalism.

I’m not sure how much of a James Brown impersonation Wesley Snipes is a) going to try and b) manage to pull off, but I hope we don’t end up wishing even the dialogue had been dubbed too.

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