To Dub, or Not to Dub?

MTAS Blogger Dawn Bush looks at if it’s time for musical films to bring back overdubbing for singers…


eu_batb_flex-hero_header_r_430eac8d.jpegIn the wake of the release of Beauty and the Beast, one of my dear friends posted an article that suggested that, if huge companies like Disney were going to join the big-name casting bandwagon, then they should certainly revive the practice of dubbing the star’s voice. Disney PrincessSince my friend is a lovely triple-threat actress who, like many others, was surely born to be a Disney princess, I had some sympathy with what might
have seemed to be her sour grapes: but I suggested that Disney would have done better to have cast her in the part, rather than dubbing Emma Watson’s sweet but unimpressive singing voice.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Beauty and the Beast, really loved it: and I can understand them casting Watson in the role; her bearing and character capture the spirit of the cartoon remarkably well. However, there is no doubt her voice was no more than adequate; and that only with the help of auto-tuning, which, even to my untrained ear, could be clearly recognised. However, dare I say it, I don’t much rate her as an actress. Sorry, Harry Potter fans; I’ve certainly seen worse, but I’ve also seen much better.

Singing in RainDubbing isn’t by any means new. The story of Singin’ in the Rain is arguably the most famous example of it – not in the dubbing of the movie itself, but in the storyline; where the young Debbie Reynolds plays the hapless ingenue whose career is almost de-railed by the big star, Lina Lamont. Lina’s own voice is so hilariously squeaky, she tries to steal that of her rival, Kathy Selden. The manipulation of the star and the studio bosses depicted in this movie isn’t merely a storyline, though; in this case, art was imitating life rather than the other way around. There’s no doubt that Singin’ in the Rain puts the practice of dubbing firmly in the realm of deception; we are made to feel outrage that Kathy’s chance at becoming a star in her own right will take second place to Lamont’s career: and rightly so, in my opinion.

HepburnI remember being surprised and disappointed as a girl, when my mum told me that it wasn’t Audrey Hepburn singing the songs in the movie My Fair Lady. Hepburn was cast as the second choice to Julie Andrews, who, of course, would have been able to put her own stamp on the songs with very little effort. Marnie Nixon, who dubbed the vocals for Hepburn, got no credit for the film; but apparently made a whole career of anonymous dubbing-in, singing for many others, including Sister Sophia in the Sound of Music: Maria Nunez in West Side Story: and Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Undoubtedly, her voice matches Audrey Hepburn’s speaking voice beautifully – you would never guess it wasn’t her – and with that song, it was a wise choice. There’s a lovely comparison here, if you want to hear the original with Hepburn singing.

The gamine and gorgeous Hepburn, now a screen icon, was no stranger to second choices. The role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with the timeless and beautiful song Moon River, was first intended for Marilyn Monroe; but the song, apparently, was written especially for Hepburn. It’s a sweet and sentimental rendition of a simple song, and no-one can imagine anyone else singing it now; but the reason she could carry it off was because it was written for her, using the range she could manage with relative ease.

It seems in films, the look of the actor outweighs the need for them to be able to sing. Mark Lester, cast as Oliver in the 1968 movie, had the ethereal looks needed to tug the heartstrings of women and girls everywhere, but couldn’t sing a note. His voice was dubbed by a girl; Kathe Green. I wept tears of adolescent disappointment when I found out, and transferred my crush to Jack Wild, who, if not nearly as angelic in looks, at least sang his own songs!

VaderThere have been numerous “deceptions” like this down the years, and not all in musicals. A notable one was seen in the publicly-expressed outrage of Dave Prowse, who played the original Darth Vader. On a famous chat show, he told us all that he had no idea until he saw the movies that not only his voice, but his head had been dubbed (if changing a head can be called dubbing!). A gentle giant, he found it hard to keep the hurt out of his voice, at the way he’d been treated. Once again, the actor had been picked for his physique, Dave Prowse being an intimidatingly large man. Originally a bodybuilder and weightlifter, he was a familiar face to children of my generation everywhere, having both taught us how to cross the road correctly, and advised us to eat sweetcorn; and we were so proud that he was flying the flag for the UK in such a wonderful film. I can’t say, though that I was surprised they dubbed his voice – it was not really up to the gravitas needed for Darth Vader.

Even the cartoon Jessica Rabbit has two voices. They dubbed the dubber in that one. Kathleen Turner was the totally recognisable speaking voice, and actress Amy Irving dubbed the songs.

Back to the present day, and I find myself in a dilemma. I do love to hear a good singer; but I have to say, I think the recent spate of star-cast musical movies each have a certain charm. I loved La La Land, despite the weak voices of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. I loved Beauty and the Beast, despite Emma Watson’s inability to match Paige O’Hara – who was the voice of Belle in the cartoon – in the vocal stakes. These stars join the ranks of other famous non-singers, like Richard Burton, who sang How to Handle a Woman in the film Camelot; Nicole Kidman and Ewan Mcgregor in Moulin Rouge; and no doubt many others I haven’t mentioned. There’s something about hearing an untrained voice singing in a movie, that says “this is a real person,” and, for me, it adds to the charm of the film.

DiceSo I guess I come down on the side that says No to dubbing, as long as the songs are not too difficult. The star in question needs to be able to take a good shot at it, at least. Would we be prepared, these days, to forgive what was forgiven in Rex Harrison, who couldn’t actually sing a note, and was still cast in My Fair Lady and Doctor Doolittle? If anyone needed their voice dubbing, he’s surely a prime example. (We won’t go into why they felt they needed to dub the female in My Fair Lady, and not the male. I feel my feminist hackles rising, let’s not go there!) And if the songs are too difficult?  Well – rather than dubbing, there are many, many good actors out there who are also professional singers. If that’s what’s required, then that’s what should be cast. The need for star casting certainly shouldn’t have been an issue with Beauty and the Beast; they already had an audience of people who had grown up with the cartoon, as well as the mighty name of Disney behind it. Why on earth didn’t they search for someone who could do the songs justice? The potential for publicity in such a search would outweigh the star name, even when it’s Emma Watson.
afefreLet’s just be thankful that dubbing hasn’t reached Musical Theatre. Can you imagine how awful it would be? At least on the live stage we know that what we are seeing is the person singing, with all their faults – and no auto-tuning. If they have an off performance, it’s all part of the show. Live music, live singing, is an organic thing; you can’t guarantee anything other than that the person you see is – hopefully – going to give you the best performance they can. It may be a risk, but without risk there’s no triumph. Don’t you agree?

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