As film subjects go, they're problematic. Heirs to the Joplin and Hendrix estates have blocked films by withholding music and image rights. The pieces to the Gaye story are in so many hands that no one has been able to collect them all in one place.
No, the talk these days is about Queen and Sam Cooke, 2Pac and Teddy Pendergrass, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli's days in the Four Seasons and Brian Epstein's career managing the Beatles. A key factor -- and this is a shift in the movie-making paradigm -- is access to life rights and music, a desire by stars and heirs to have their stories told and a new level of proactivity from rights-holders. Securing recordings and publishing rights has become the first order of business rather than the final step in setting up a film.
Heirs and family members are making better efforts in coordinating with publishers before taking stories to filmmakers. The 20th-century model relied on a studio or production company having an interest in a musician's story -- Benny Goodman, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Parker, for example -- and once all the pieces were in place, they'd approach the copyright owners.
In the post-"Ray" universe, wherein budgets are smaller and independent companies are the most interested in these stories, rights are secured before a filmmaking team is assembled. Only one of the 15 or so active biopics with directors, stars, writers or scripts attached has studio backing. The exception is the story of songwriter/producer Dennis Lambert ("Ain't No Woman [Like the One I've Got]," "Don't Pull Your Love") and his musical reawakening with Steve Carell ("The Office") in the lead role; it's attached to a Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley script at Warner Bros. And only one biopic, the Mahalia Jackson story -- starring Fantasia Barrino -- has reportedly begun shooting.
The Lambert and Jackson stories are among a dozen musician biographies that have made significant strides in the last six months toward becoming reality. "The time is right" is a common refrain among filmmakers, about half of whom note that their movies will focus on a specific time in an artist's life rather than an entire life span.
For decades, biopic scripts have dramatized a kind of rise, fall and redemption arc, but an increasing number of filmmakers are focusing instead on a specific issue and/or time period-Queen as superstars, Wilson's post-Beach Boys years, Lambert's tour of the Philippines-to drive their stories. In most cases the story involves overcoming an obstacle, becoming more than just a chronological detailing of a life and career.
"The power of music and second chances drives the Lambert story," says Jody Lambert, who shot a documentary about his father's career revival. The 2008 movie "Of All the Things" screened at South by Southwest and other film festivals. "Any place where people get their mojo back is a good story, very universal," he says. Lambert knows the tale will get some Hollywood-style tweaking in the retelling.
He's hardly alone, though, in taking an active role in ensuring that the story is delivered correctly. The living members of Queen -- Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon -- created the company Queen Films and joined producer Graham King's GK Films in getting the band's tale-which will begin in 1980 and end with Queen's Live Aid performance in 1985-turned into a film. "Borat" creator Sacha Baron Cohen will star as the late Freddie Mercury. GK Films, which backed "The Departed," "The Town" and biopics "The Aviator" and "Ali," is the biggest fish right now in the music biopic pond.
"You can't get through four guys' lives from scratch," says four-time Academy Award winner King, who adds that the movie's time frame was chosen because it's the period during which Queen reached superstar status. "Making a movie about someone who is no longer with us provides advantages and disadvantages. This movie is about Queen. You've got to respect the individuals."
ABKCO president Jody Klein owns and controls Sam Cooke's recordings and publishing and has commissioned a script based on Peter Guralnick's 2005 book "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" (Little, Brown). With the blessing of Cooke's heirs, he's started shopping it to directors. The life of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, aka "the Fifth Beatle," is moving forward with six to 10 Beatles songs, according to executive producer Vivek Tiwary. His Tiwary Entertainment Group, which has produced the road tours of musicals "American Idiot" and "The Addams Family," has been involved with the project since late 2005.
A son and daughter of Beach Boy Wilson have teamed with former Warner/Chappell executive Brad Rosenberger and filmmakers Randy Miller and Jody Savin ("Bottle Shock") to tell the drummer's story (focusing on the '70s) in "The Drummer." "Jersey Boys," the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is aiming for a fall 2013 release from GK Films. King calls it "a passion project, something I pursued stronger than anything else in my career."
Judy McHugh Larkin has commissioned a script about the life of John Larkin, an itinerant jazz pianist who, despite a stuttering problem, sold millions of CDs as Scatman John. EMI Publishing is assisting in getting the script to potential producers.On the flip side, and proof of how valuable a family's involvement can be, the Jerry Garcia estate last year put the kibosh on Amir Bar-Lev's film based on a Topper Lilien adaptation of Robert Greenfield's 1996 book "Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia" (William Morrow). The estate said it wouldn't license recordings from the Grateful Dead or Garcia's solo works and that access to family members wouldn't be provided.