What makes an Oscar-worthy fake musical performance? This is a question that Academy Award nominee Mahershala Ali grappled with as he trained for his role in Green Book, which required him to imitate the virtuosic piano skills of Dr. Don Shirley. Ali compared the challenge of fake-playing the piano to an actor taking on the role of NBA legend Michael Jordan: “I don’t care how much you work out or practice. You’re not jumping from the free-throw line.” What is true for imitating basketball greatness is also true for performing Chopin.
While some Oscar-nominated films feature real musicians (Lady Gaga is unmistakably singing for real in A Star is Born), it’s difficult to cast a mortal human being who has both the acting chops of Meryl Streep and the violin skills of Itzhak Perlman. What to do if you’re an actor who doesn’t know the difference between a piano and a forte? As someone who spent years touring the world as a fake violinist, I have some tips for producing an Oscar-worthy fake musical performance.
It starts before a single fake note is ever played.
In learning to imitate Shirley’s musicianship, Ali desired to move through the world in the particular way that a concert pianist does. “A lot of it was just talking about posture,” said Kris Bowers, who composed the film’s score, coached Ali’s acting, and served as body double for Ali’s hands.
If an actor is imitating a performer on stage, as Meryl Streep does in the moment-of-triumph scene in Music of the Heart, the fake performance begins with the walk. Streep, in her Academy Award-nominated role of violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, enters stage left of Carnegie Hall by taking the small but deliberate steps of someone who doesn’t want to swing her hands too much — the exact walk of someone who is used to carrying an expensive, fragile violin. Streep also nails the eye contact and breathing patterns of a Suzuki teacher, as well as the diagonal, open body posture taught to young violinists everywhere.
Holding the instrument properly is almost as important as being able to play it.
The most common way I am able to tell that an actor cannot really play the violin is the way they hold the instrument. Take Russell Crowe in his role as the violin-loving Captain Jack Aubrey in the Academy Award-winning film Master and Commander. Crowe cradles the violin too tightly to his body, as if he is afraid he will drop it, like a father with a newborn baby. It’s the universal pose of non-violinists; every single person who has ever asked me to try a few notes on my violin has become visibly frightened once I actually hand it to them. It’s lighter than they expect, and they realize just how delicate it is. Just holding a violin can make the most macho Hollywood actor look vulnerable.
Even Streep — Meryl Streep! — doesn’t quite hold the violin at the right angle. Her scroll is pointed toward the ceiling, as if she is wading into a pool and trying to keep her violin from getting wet. It seems as though even the best actors make the mistake of becoming so obsessed with the challenge of fake-playing that they forget to master something they could master for real: holding the instrument as a professional would.
Learn just enough notes for a two-second shot.
In his first coaching session for Green Book, Ali spent three hours just learning how to play a C-major scale on the piano. While that is a tortuous amount of time to spend learning something so basic, a scale’s worth of notes is enough to fake-play through several seconds of footage. Streep claims to have learned the Bach Double concerto before the filming at Carnegie Hall. And yet the camera never lingers on her fingers long enough to prove she could play more than a few notes up to tempo (she does a better job with bowing). Still, a few notes can go a long way in allowing the viewer to suspend disbelief and thus connect with the film’s larger story. As for the rest of the shots, they can be performed by a body double. Which brings me to…
The Octopus Method.
My favorite method of cinematic fake musicianship is the Octopus Method, a term coined by Francois Girard, director of the Academy Award-winning The Red Violin. It involves filming an actor with his arms at his sides, while the arms of actual musicians do the work. In The Red Violin, actor Jason Flemyng had the violin tucked under his chin, while the violinist Joshua Bell stood to his left and provided the fingerings, and yet another violinist stood to Flemyng’s right and provided the bowings. The real violinists’ arms were tied to Flemyng’s, so that the actor could respond more naturally to the violinists’ movements. As awkward as the Octopus Method is to execute, the scenes with Flemyng’s character — a hedonistic, sex-crazed soloist — reach an orgasmic level of free-wheeling virtuosity that makes them the best fake-violining I’ve ever seen on screen.
When all else fails, cut to the face.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the technical requirements for producing a convincing fake musical performance, it’s wise to remember why audiences want to watch a story about a musician in the first place. Music, regardless of its source, moves us. Aristotle thought that music’s purpose was to “order” our emotions, while later philosophers argued that music allowed humans to access the divine. Because music is so emotional, we are captivated by the faces of musicians as they play.
Who does this best? The big screen is full of actors — like Flemying in The Red Violin — who masterfully imitate brutish climaxes of sweaty classical passion. But the best fake-performance of musical emotion that I’ve ever seen goes to an actress on a small-screen streaming show that was prematurely canceled: Lola Kirke of the late, great, Emmy-winning Mozart in the Jungle. In her role as Hailey Rutledge, an aspiring-to-the-big-leagues oboist, Kirke approaches the oboe as something at once personal and universal. Her music both belongs to her and belongs to us all. Her facial expressions as she wets her reed and tumbles full-heartedly into a faked riff of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade are a master class in understated, believable fake performance.
At the time she was cast, Kirke knew nothing of classical music, let alone how to play the world’s most notoriously difficult instrument. And yet, on my third viewing of the show (seriously, Amazon, why was it canceled?) her emotional connection with her instrument, conveyed by subtle shifts in her eyes while fake-playing, comes across as completely authentic. Her performance reminds me that music is, in its way, a sonic human face, expressing emotions in a way that no language can. Regardless of whether it comes from a live performance or an over-dubbed recording, there is nothing fake about that.
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman has “performed” on PBS, QVC, and at concert halls worldwide. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, McSweeney’s, Brevity, and Hippocampus. She holds a BA in Middle Eastern studies and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and a PhD in English from the University of North Texas. She teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University and lives in Newport, Kentucky.
Jessica Hindman’s debut memoir, Sounds Like Titanic, is available wherever books are sold.