By Megan Bianco
There is a lot being said about the latest interpretation of Beauty & the Beast, which is essentially just a live-action remake of Disney’s 1991 animated masterpiece. Like all remakes of beloved films, it’s had a polarizing reaction. Of course the fans of the original are the harshest critics, and there are high standards and nit-picking. Rather than dive into many of my own issues with the new film, I’m going to focus on one particular problem: the limited singing skills of Emma Watson.
Back in the old Hollywood days, when movie musicals were a common genre, if you were cast in a musical you either sang your own vocals or were dubbed by un-credited trained vocalists if your singing wasn’t considered up to par. This was because, as has always been the case in the film industry, the studios need big names to sell the musical, and not all movie stars have Broadway levels of talent. Roughly 80 percent of the film adaptation of West Side Story (1961) had trained vocalists ghost dubbing the cast, including lead actors Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood.
Even experienced musical performers sometimes had to deal with dubbing, as was the case with Debbie Reynolds on the song ‘Would You?’ in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Female vocalist Marni Nixon was the queen of ghost dubbing in the mid-20th century, providing singing efforts for stars like Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Margaret O’Brien and Deborah Kerr. Bill Lee would be the male equivalent, dubbing for Ricardo Montalban, Christopher Plummer, John Gavin, Ben Wright and so on. Lea Salonga became the quintessential voice for Disney princesses by providing the singing skills for Jasmine in Aladdin (1992) and the title character of Mulan (1998).
Over the years though, when the rare movie musical is produced, studios will go through the effort to provide vocal lessons if needed. Sometimes the movie stars luck out, as was the case with Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Moulin Rouge (2001), Renée Zellweger in Chicago (2002) and more recently Emma Stone in La La Land (2016). The last time I can think of a live-action musical featuring dubbing is Everyone Says I Love You (1996), where Drew Barrymore insisted she couldn’t sing and was ultimately dubbed by a girl named Olivia Hayman.
With Beauty & the Beast, I knew immediately something was off when the musical numbers were barely featured in the trailers and TV spots. Especially those by the lead actress. And now we know why: she can’t sing. Or, she can, at a very, very limited range. In 1994, Cameron Diaz made her film debut in the comedy The Mask, where she played a lounge singer and had dubbed vocals on her songs. Flash forward two decades later when she’s cast as Ms. Hannigan in Annie, and something’s…different. She’s using her own singing vocals this time, but with what sounds like could possibly be the aid of Auto-tune. A feature that can be a neat gimmick in songs on the top 40, but everywhere else, and especially musicals, should be nonexistent.
Many have speculated if Emma Watson got a share of her own Auto-Tune as Belle in Beauty & the Beast, and it certainly sounds like it. There is no drive, no emotion, no range. Paige O’Hara had it all when she was hired in 1987 for the original animated movie, as she was a professional musical theatre actress. She helped bring Belle to life with her natural charm and heart in her voice, that was absent from the new adaptation. Maybe Disney paid attention to the criticism of Russell Crowe’s rock vocals being out of place in the otherwise musically talented cast of Les misérables (2012) and thought they could fix the possible issue digitally. But unfortunately audiences can still tell the difference.
Which now leads me to thinking something I never thought I’d imagine saying: ghost dubbing needs to make a comeback. Studios are always going to cast lead actors based on the name over the talent. That’s how Watson was cast in the first place, thanks to her already built fan base from Harry Potter. No one stopped watching West Side Story or My Fair Lady (1964) when they found out the movie had dubs, and I doubt people would now with new musicals. So until we get a couple more Broadway/musical theatre actors who can successfully cross over into lead film roles, it might be best to consider the old fashioned alternative.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.