From my upcoming review in the American Conservative:
Broadway musical composers can't seem to come up with catchy tunes anymore, so Hollywood has turned instead to singers' biopics, such as recent Oscar-winners "Walk the Line" (Johnny Cash) and "Ray" (Ray Charles), so audiences can still leave the theatre humming the hits.
Unfortunately, musical career arcs generally lack fresh drama. The genre's standard plot sees the struggling young prodigy get a quick lesson in how to sell a song from a veteran Svengali, after which he ascends to superstardom during a montage. In Act II, the singer struggles with his "inner demons," which predictably turn out to be drugs or drink.
It doesn't help that filmmakers have been oddly averse to honesty about why we idolize outstanding singers. "Walk the Line," for example, implied that Cash became a legend because of the emotional trauma of his younger brother's death. Likewise, when Hollywood finally makes "The Shaquille O'Neal Story," we'll no doubt learn that Shaq grew up to be a 7'1" NBA center because his beloved pet dog got run over.
What made Cash unique, however, was that bass-baritone voice with which he would thrillingly rumble, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Joaquin Phoenix, a fine actor but a mere baritone, couldn't match it.
In contrast, "Dreamgirls," the deservedly crowd-pleasing film version of the 1981 Broadway musical, demonstrates how making stuff up can be more truthful. A highly fictionalized account of Motown's Supremes (renamed the Dreams), it refreshingly puts conflicts over voices and looks at the center of this story of three Detroit high school friends who become the biggest American pop group of the 1960s.