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Music Biopics: What's Been Done, What's In The Works, & What We Want

September 19th, 2008 9:07am EDT
Walk the LineThe biopic is a longstanding Hollywood tradition. There are the big budget epics like the now infamous Elizabeth Taylor vehicle "Cleopatra," David Lean's masterpiece, "Lawrence of Arabia," or Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi." Then there are the smaller pictures chronicling the equally gripping stories of those less celebrated. Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the Irish cerebral palsy painter, Christy Brown in "My Left Foot," or Bill Condon's 2004 film "Kinsey" about human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey come to mind.

In recent years, thanks in part to the wide success of the films "Ray" and "Walk the Line," the music biopic has become the new hot ticket in Hollywood-the sure-fire road to an Oscar and one the best ways to rejuvenate or honor a music career. Whether it's the posthumous homage (the aforementioned pieces on Ray Charles and Johnny Cash) or the current reminder of the musical pioneers of our time (the Tina Turner story, otherwise known as "What's Love Got To Do With It"), the music biopic sells.

LiberaceAcclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (currently promoting his Toronto Film Festival audience favorite epic political biopic of Che Guevara) recently announced his rather curious intentions of bringing the life Polish-American musician Liberace to the big screen with Michael Douglas in talks to star as the debonair Vegas pianist and entertainer. A project like this may seem a bit odd coming from someone as well respected as Soderbergh, especially following a biopic about a Latin American revolutionary. And since the Liberace fanbase is mainly comprised of veteran AARP members and lavish Vegas performers the allure of this project for mainstream audiences is also questionable.

The trick of making any sort of successful biopic is a commanding story that is worth telling, generally one with a bit of tragedy to really pull at those Academy members. Taking on someone like Liberace seems strange but when you take a closer look at his life, particularly his debated sexual orientation and legal woes with alleged long-time boyfriend Scott Thorson (set to be played by Matt Damon) the plot thickens.

With the currently untitled Liberace picture slated for a 2010 release and many other intriguing music biopics either rumored or in the works, it seemed fitting to go through and examine some other upcoming projects and also give some thoughts on musicians of past and present who are in need of their own silver screen biopic.

Miles DavisUntitled Miles Davis Project:
Forget his obvious merits as one of Jazz music's innovators and pioneers-changing the face of the musical art form various times throughout his extensive career-Miles Davis has one hell of a compelling and complicated life. His sprawling and juicy autobiography (which one would hope would provide the most information for a biopic like this) tells the story of a genius rising to stardom, falling into obscurity, and battling his various demons-mainly drug addiction, womanizing, and race-fueled contempt-all along the way. You know, the usual attributes of a music biopic. Don Cheadle has long been interested in producing as well as starring in this project, which could potentially be split into two films (to fairly cover Davis' life) with the musician's release of the controversial and life changing 1969 jazz/rock album Bitches Brew being the center of the epic film. If Clint Eastwood's forgotten masterpiece "Bird" did justice to jazz master Charlie Parker's short but monumental career, a film covering is Davis is long over due. Possible Titles: Take your pick from his many album titles: "Miles Ahead," "In a Silent Way," "Kind of Blue," or "The Birth of Cool."





Janis JoplinThe Gospel According to Janis:
A Janis Joplin biopic has been in talks for what seems like ages. At one point Pink, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan were each set to star. Now the much more promising Zooey Deschanel (whose pipes best all three of the aforementioned pop stars) has taken the reins. Joplin's is another tragic story of one of America's most beloved 60s music icons. A parallel project on Jimi Hendrix and or Mama Cass from the Mama's and the Poppas would fit in well with Joplin's memorable Monterey Pop fest highlights.

Notorious:
The tragic departure of two of modern rap's forefathers, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. has received its share of media attention but both have life stories that rival that of Greek tragedy and deserve recognition. This project, set for a 2009 release, stars Anthony Mackie as Shakur, Derek Luke as Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, and newcomer Jamal Woolard as Biggie. The only thing holding this project back are the various recent documentary films about both artists covering not only their subsequent careers but also their deaths, most notably the extremely compelling "Tupac: Resurrection."

Bob MarleyNo Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley:
Here is another inevitable project just waiting to be picked up. Martin Scorsese was originally in line to direct a documentary on the reggae star's life and musical career. This has since been passed on (possibly to Jonathan Demme). The Weinstein Company recently picked up the rights to a biopic based on Maley's widow, Rita Marley's 2004 book chronicling Marley's rise to fame. Not much else is known about the project other than the fact that Rita is in line to produce and has recommended Lauryn Hill (who is married to Rohan Marley, Bob's son from another woman) to portray her in the film. Rita has also suggested her grandson Stefan takes on the role of his grandfather since he is, "the splitting image of Bob." Less obvious title: Trenchtown Rocker

What We Do Is Secret:
Punk rockers always seem to have the most fascinating life stories. Alex Cox's loose biopic of Sex Pistols crazy man Sid Vicious has since become the epitome of the smaller, independent biopic (last year's "Control," a haunting retelling of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis' short life is another prime example). "Secret" tells the tale of Darby Crash, the charismatic singer for the L.A. punk band The Germs. The production of this film, which stars Shane West as Crash, was overlooked by the Germs surviving members, Lorna Doom and Pat Smear only increasing its level of intrigue and authenticity. Crash's suicide was overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon the day after and his story has never fully been told to a wide audience. While the Germs are less-known outside of the punk community they were an important part of a budding musical scene in the U.S., with Crash serving as one of punks many seminal leaders.

Sex Pistols




Iggy PopThe Passenger:
Another fascinating face in the punk, or better yet, proto-punk arena is one Iggy Pop. Lead singer for The Stooges, body building enthusiasts, drug enthusiast, and prolific musician, his is a story worth telling. The scenes portraying his late 70s musical epoch/drug rehabilitation in Europe with David Bowie would be reason enough to seek this film out. Elijah Wood is set to star as Pop in the film, which gets its title from one of Pop's tracks from an early solo LP, "Lust for Life." While some might question the casting choice of Wood, the man who was Frodo, to tackle the Raw Power of Pop, Iggy himself has said in interviews that he regards Elijah as a talented actor.

Other Rumored Projects:

-The biggest rumored piece is a John Lennon biopic ranging from his childhood until his death. Kate Winslet is rumored to portray Lennon's mother, the inspiration for Lennon's devastating song, "Mother," which is jumpstarted with the lines, "Mother, You had me but I never had you." Chilling.

-Jerry Garcia biopic-one of the young stars of TV's "Malcolm In the Middle" is set to produce a biopic of the late Grateful Dead grizzly man musician. The idea of a Hollywood film about Garcia and the dead must send shivers down the spines of aging deadheads across the country.

-Untitled Deborah Harry Project-Kirstin Dunst has been rumored to take on Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry in a biopic on her rise to stardom amidst the CBGB New York punk scene. It's not this is a bad idea since Harry remains an underappreciated 80s pop star with an interesting tale to be told, the problem is Dunst, a so-so actor with very little range whose physical appearance might be her only qualification for the role.

Kurt Cobain-Kurt and Courtney-Courtney Love has expressed in interviews that she would very much like to see a film about her relationship with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain with Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Gosling starring as grunge's first Mr. and Mrs. The status of the project doesn't go much farther than this and knowing Love's history this could be all there is to it.

-Jeff Buckley Biopic-The death of singer songwriter Jeff Buckley following his debut masterpiece, Grace remains one of the most mysterious and unsettling departures in music history. Whether or not there is enough to his story to warrant a biopic is up for debate. Still both Spin Magazine and the Hollywood Reporter have reported that a script of his life is being shopped around.

Dream Biopics:

-Elliott Smith-If they can document the life of Jeff Buckley in a biopic then why not the equally talented and tragically missed vocal sensation from the Pacific Northwest. Sure Smith fans might not be keen a mainstream portrayal of the beloved artist but his is a story worth remembering. Possible title: Between the Bars

-Frank Zappa-Again, Zappa's music and notoriety might be too obscure for the mainstream but his career is unlike any other musician out there and his defense of free speech in the legendary 1985 Senate hearings battling the Parents Music Resource Center is reason enough to warrant a jump to the silver screen. His son Dweezil has already toured covering his father's music and could undoubtedly grow the legendary mustache for a role if one were ever offered. Possible Title: The Grand Wazoo

-Isaac Hayes-This may be too early since the man just passed away but if you look past his recent voiceover roles on Southpark, this man had a pretty prolific career getting his start as a songwriter for some of Motown's finest tunes. Possible Title: Walk On By

-Cat Stevens-Sure he's considered a loony now but Cat Stevens once had a beautiful career as a folk singer/songwriter. His evolution and rebirth as Yusuf Islam is ripe for exploration.

What other musicians are worthy of a biopic and which projects of past, present or future do you feel were unnecessary?

C. Warner Sills
Story by C. Warner Sills

Starpulse contributing writer