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

(Story originally written for

The 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 andJohnny 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:
Janis Joplin biopic has been in talks for what seems like ages. At one point PinkBritney 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.

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 Woodis 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 withScarlett 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.

Stone v. Bush

Oliver Stone is one of those directors people either love or hate. His forte has always been the delivery of controversy – sometimes executed with brilliance, other times with insanity. All in all he’s been blessed with a career as varied as any other.

The director is currently hard at work on an upcoming, potentially fiery biopic of our current leader, George W. Bush, the ironically simple, W. (pronounced dubya). Unlike past large scale Stone projects–the poorly delivered, strangely erotic Alexander the Great biopic perhaps–W. is set to be a low-budget, small romp of a film that appears to have more of political agenda than the director lets on.

W. is hardly Stone’s first exploration of powerful political figures. The director’s 1991 film JFK was an interesting, if not a bit paranoid, look at the conspiracy theories regarding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. His underappreciated biopic Nixon was an intense character study of quite possibly America’s most complicated, hated, and generally misunderstood Presidents. Even his rarely discussed 2003 documentary Comandante, which explored the life of revolutionary Cuban leader Fidel Castro, set out to show that there was more to the controversial figure than the nation’s current negative attitude. 

From what is known about W. it’s hard to say whether Stone’s aim is to fairly examine America’s current comandante or merely dish out a film that treads the waters of simple character assassination. 

ImageEntertainment Weekly Magazine’s current issue features a cover story about the new film with the two stars–the rising middle-age actor Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Banks as President and first lady Bush–on the cover in full makeup. The film has an impressive cast of greats, most of which are not only respectable in their trade but visually are spot on matches to the characters they’re embodying. Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Thandie Newton as Condi, the great James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as Ma and Pa Bush, and the intriguing casting of Rob Corddry as Ari Fleischer all make up the company.

At the moment this promising lineup appears to be the best thing going for the film. Stone has said in interviews that he has every intention of delivering a fair and balanced look at Bush’s life and actions leading up to his current position. The problem with this supposed stance on the film is that he often follows these comments up with references to particular Bush blunders over the years. He also contends that this man is not as complicated as we might suspect but rather just funny and to quote the director, “awkward and goofy.”

Here lies the potential problem with W. Most people would have a difficult time denying that George W. Bush will carry the legacy of one of America’s worst Presidents. While he has slipped through two terms and a barrage of dissent it’s safe to say history will not be so forgiving. Still why make a film glorifying everything that’s wrong with the man?

A couple months ago an early draft of the film was leaked on the internet, mainly to popular political blogs and media hound dogs. In it were certain scenes dating back to Bush’s wild youth. During one such moment, which is discussed in the EW feature, a 26-year-old inebriated Dubya crashes his car onto the lawn of his parent’s house and then verbally assaults his father with barrage of angst about standing in the shadow of a great man. Later on Bush nearly crashes a small plane, again also under the influence of alcohol. There’s even an account of Bush playfully locking Colin Powell out of the oval office during a cabinet meeting. 

These little snippets of Bush’s life may be amusing and are most likely factually accurate (Stone supposedly referenced 20 or so Bush biographies and consulted with experts during the writing of the script) but do they really give us a glimpse into who this man truly is? For starters the mainstream media has already had a field day with Bush’s shortcomings over the years and rather than simply follow suit Stone could use this film as a way to reveal the real George W. Bush. What led him to where he is today? Why the choices he made? How about his strong religious beliefs? What role did his father play in his life?

The greatest and most unexpected part of Stone’s film Nixon was that it took on one of America’s most despised political figures and gave us a sympathetic and complex look at who this man was and what made him choose the path that led him to so much trouble and humiliation. 2006s The Queen gave audiences a glimpse at the Queen of England’s struggles to shed the negative press about her response to Princess Diana’s untimely death and more importantly presented an intimate look at who this misunderstood woman is. While it’s clearly too early to judge W. which hasn’t even finished production, it seems like Stone’s agenda is rooted more in humiliation than examination. 

In interviews Stone has commented that the project came together rather quickly from a loose script he and his Wall Streetco-writer Stanley Weiser had been toying with between larger projects (he’s also working on another Vietnam era film about the bloody My Lai Massacre). The W. cast was assembled right away (all but the role of Dick Cheney, which supposedly was offered to Robert Duvall and most recently Paul Giamatti) and Stone has said that he could potentially have the film ready for an October release, amidst the heart of election season and while Bush is still behind the wheel. 

Sure releasing a highly potent piece of political controversy during an election and departure of a two term President is a way to make a splash but is it really the most mature and intelligent move? Due to the uncertainty of the future status of this country and the world a Bush biopic would make more sense five or ten years from now when people truly know the severity of his footprint in history. 

Stone’s previous film was 2006s World Trade Center, a decent but fairly uninspiring retelling of the morning of September 11th. While Stone’s honoring of the courageous port authority cops and fire fighters was moving it held no real substance and was perhaps a little too much too soon (the more refined United 93 portrayed the chaos and horrors of that morning with greater depth and emotion). With W. it could be that Stone is again rushing to make a statement that is already apparent in most people’s minds and is trading his artistic merit for the prospect of a controversial splash in the pond.

It’s still very premature to tell what Stone has in store for the world with W. but unlike his past projects, which took bold positions on tough issues (the media in National Born Killers, conspiracy theorists in JFK, the Vietnam war protest in Born on the Fourth of July, and the world perception of Castro’s Cuba in Comandante), Stone’s W. comes off as nothing more than a way to stick it to our current commander in chief. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was without a doubt a left-leaning, scathing look at Bush and his cabinet but also helped to unveil a lot of need-to-know information regarding our President’s business prospects and relations in the Middle East. Whether or not Bush is worthy of a beating for some of his childish wrongdoings is entirely up to the viewer but you could argue that finger pointing and petty character assassination from a seasoned director such as Mr. Stone is just as juvenile.

The Marriage of Music and Cinema

It was recently announced that veteran American filmmaker Martin Scorsese is set to direct a documentary on the life and work of George Harrison. Music and film fans know that this will not be Mr. Scorsese’s first encounter with music documentaries. He recently chronicled Bob Dylan’s controversial “gone electric” epoch in the fascinating PBS film No Direction Home and has a new documentary, Shine A Light, about the Rolling Stones recent Bigger Bang tour slated for a winter theatrical release. Of course Marty is probably best known for his perfectly crafted music film, The Last Waltz, a documentary/concert experience chronicling the final show of The Band, which is hands down one of the finest rock music films ever made. With the currently untitled Harrison project underway it’s apparent that Scorsese, who is as much of a pop music buff as he is a film buff, is embracing the current Hollywood fad that is musical biopics and docudramas.

The chronicling of music through film via “rockumentaries,” biopics, and concert films is hardly a new trend by any means. Still it’s hard to deny that thanks to recent Oscar bait hits such as Walk the Line and Ray (both satisfactory albeit fairly formulaic if you ask me) it seems that, similar to the recent wave of “remakes,” music biopics are the new hot ticket in Hollywood.

Just look at the lineup of upcoming music related icon films coming out. Later this fall Todd Hayne’s highly anticipated avant-garde Bob Dylan film I’m Not There starring seven actors (including a role by Cate Blanchett) portraying the legendary artist hits theaters. Control, a dark British biopic of the late Joy Division front man Ian Curtis has an upcoming U.S. release date, and a Janis Joplin film, The Gospel According to Janis, (which at one point had Pink in the starring role) is slated for a 2008 release. Add these to the long list of rumored music films set for production: a Miles Davis film staring Don Cheadle, a Jimi Hendrix biopic featuring Outkast’s André “3000” Benjamin, there are talks of a Marvin Gaye life story movie, a film chronicling the career of Blondie’s Debbie Harry starring Kirsten Dunst (I know, I know, I too cringe at this idea), a Freddie Mercury piece starring Sacha “Borat” Cohen (fairly dead on casting if you ask me), and even a film about the short-lived pop scam artists Milli Vanilli with two of the Wayans Brothers rumored to headline. Also let’s not forget the inevitable James Brown biopic, which already has an IMDB page slotted for a 2009 release. From this list alone (who knows how many others are in the works) it’s clear that there are a slew of possibly brilliant, possibly horrid music films ahead in the future. It also begs the question what’s next?

There is nothing wrong with honoring or exploring a musician or band’s career through film, however, like all genres in Hollywood these films are in danger of being overdone. Ray and Walk the Line proved that there is big money and endless award possibilities in films honoring recently deceased greats. This concept makes sense, however, it often leads to equally warranted legends being overlooked.

Sly Stone was once a prolific soul/funk/rock powerhouse who influenced countless musicians including jazz legend Miles Davis (the Miles biopic is definitely warranted in my opinion) and had an unprecedented career but people are quick to forget about his importance since he’s been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Besides being considered a musical genius with an impressive career behind him, Frank Zappa was also an outspoken advocate for first amendment free speech rights– the PMRC censorship trial that Zappa testified at in 1985 was a pinnacle moment in pop music history. These are just two examples from a long list of people who I believe are much more interesting and important than someone like Debbie Harry (sorry Blondie fans). Then there is the world of Jazz music, which today is often completely forgotten about save a small population.

Clint Eastwood’s overlooked biopic, Bird, about the troubled bop jazz genius Charlie Parker did justice to the sax players life but why not take on equally important cats such as avant-garde masters Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius or even blues legend Robert Johnson, whose “sold my soul to the devil” mythology alone is worth a film of sorts. I can’t help but think that these stories are equally as important as someone like Ray Charles and long overdue for a film or documentary.

In the past there have been a number of stellar music documentaries and biopics that were worthy of their visions. Alex Cox’s daunting but fascinating film, Sid and Nancy, explored the dark side of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, one truly troubled musician, and was rocketed by a near flawless performance by Gary Oldman. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is probably the crème of the crop when it comes to concerts chronicled on film thanks to a minimalist yet creative vision and a band as unique as the Talking Heads working in its prime. In the overlooked indie music documentary arena there have been a number of exemplary titles in recent years. Films such as 1999s The Buena Vista Social Club, a film that introduced world audiences to a small sect of Cuban jazz musicians whose music barely made it across the ocean prior to the film’s release; American Hardcore, an exploration of the 80s underground punk scene in the United States or Scratch, a cool sleeper from a couple years back that paid homage to the “two turntables and a microphone” musical philosophy and the world of DJ artists, are just a couple examples of small, no thrills niche music documentaries that prove that big names and big budgets don’t always lead to greatness.

It’s important for filmmakers and documentarians alike to continue tapping into musical history as well as explore current trends (anyone see that street dance movie Rize a couple years ago?). These films can not only honor the subjects but also serve as windows for younger audiences/listeners to explore music they may not be familiar with. Like all cinematic endeavors however, music films should be handled with care and should not be made just for the sake of being made or because studio execs see it as a vehicle for top dollars and Oscar gold. Film, if done right, can be a tool with endless opportunities. I trust Scorsese with a Harrison project because I know his passion is in the right place and I look forward to this intriguing Dylan film, I’m Not There, because it’s appears to stray away from formulaic biopic norms. Still I can’t help but be skeptical when I hear about the next big budget biopic to hit the theaters. Then again it’s up to the filmmakers to help shed this doubt.