Sounds of discontent


Life is too short for the compact disc. It was often hard enough to get through an LP, with its 40 minutes of playing time, but CDs routinely clock in at close to double that length. While this has been accommodating for Beethoven and Brahms, it has put a strain on rock and jazz albums, which usually struggle to hold the attention over the length of what used to be thought of as an indulgence, the double album. Yet the trend is moving towards packages of music that prize biblical playing time over all else. The news at the end of last year that Neil Young, one of the most grizzled campaigners in rock, was planning a retrospective collection of previously unissued material which might stretch to 32 CDs set an exhausting new standard for contemporary music's boxed-set fetish. How much, indeed, is enough?

The CD itself, with its cool, neutered presence as an artefact, has long been a source of dismay among vinyl diehards. The clack of jewel-cases and the cold shine of the discs seem soulless next to the tactile warmth of the LP sleeve and the sensuous gleam of virgin vinyl. But CD sound has improved to the point where it can comfortably compete with high-end audiophile LP reproduction, as well as eliminating surface noise and inner-groove distortion. As a sound-carrier, the CD is as handsomely utilitarian as most of us require. Its convenient miniaturism, though, has begun to encourage a bloated and tyrannical new trend in the industry. Multidisc sets, outside of the classical milieu, were rare in the days of the LP. Now, with the major companies worried by a slackening market, they are ubiquitous.

The so-called "brilliant" jewel-case can accommodate two CDs in just the same space as one, so what would once have been a four-album set has now assumed matchbox dimensions. But this is small beer compared with the fashion for reissuing the comprehensive works of artists major and minor alike, in voluptuous editions. Tall multidisc packages, which look like chocolate boxes stood vertical, are made to line shelves like books by the yard. Whole careers are telescoped into bulging digipaks.

Sometimes, as in some celebrated jazz editions like Miles Davis's The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, a few days of recording has been reissued in its entirety: admirable for scholars, but how often will the rest of us want to take these discs out of their pigeonhole and play through them? The most committed of admirers welcomes this sort of thing, and always has done: that is why there has long been an industry of bootleggers, supplying every squeak a favourite artist has made on stage and in studio out-takes to those who will settle for nothing less.

Now, though, we are seeing what are effectively boxfuls of old tapes, perhaps once rejected, newly resuscitated and presented as prime cut. I much enjoyed Bruce Springsteen's four-disc Tracks, recently appraised here, but when I want to hear Springsteen, I will most likely put on one of his best studio records - Tunnel of Love, probably - and leave Tracks sitting on the shelf. And I know I would rather have heard a new record by him.

Neil Young is usually considered an old, wild card in the rock industry, who's seldom followed expectations and kept to his own cussed and individual idiom. I have just counted 19 Young discs on my shelf, and I think that will do for me. The idea of sitting through a further day-and-a-half of his music, even in bite-size chunks, holds as much appeal as reading through Britannica, or eating through a wedding cake. Records are not like encyclopaedias. They are made to be played. When they become as much work as this, they are like Jack - a dull boy.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.