BIOPIC VS. DOCUMENTARY
As stars age and the Internet threatens to mash up all but the most recent pop culture history, more musical artists are volunteering for biopic treatment.
Aretha Franklin has suggested actresses she would like to portray her -- Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson and Patina Miller from Broadway's "Sister Act" -- but specifics about a script or financing aren't forthcoming (though the Queen of Soul has said she's secured funding). And Ice Cube recently mentioned on TBS' "Lopez Tonight" that he was working on an N.W.A film, but said little more than that "it's definitely a story to be told."
Are such moves a pre-emptive strike? If artists or their heirs publicly state that they're working on their own film, a rival production might back down. The biopics that do get made require a tenacious filmmaker and the support of rights-holders, usually family members.
"When you look at how long it takes to make a biopic, it's easier to do these stories as documentaries," says filmmaker David Leaf, who's branching out into scripted films after having made documentary features about chapters in the lives of John Lennon, James Brown and Brian Wilson. "There are different storytelling challenges. As a screenwriter, we talk about emotional truth and in documentaries it's literal truth. You can compress time and characters in a biopic in a way that you can't in a documentary."
The current crop of proposed biopics could enhance awareness and value of the artist's catalogs-crucial for those acts whose songs wouldn't otherwise be licensed.
Hinging on the Carell film being made or the documentary released, Lambert plans to get his father's music back in print, especially a newly pressed vinyl version of his lone 1972 solo album, "Bags and Things." "The Drummer" not only brings attention to Wilson's 1977 album "Pacific Ocean Blue," which Sony Legacy reissued two years ago, but also gives Rosenberger a shot at issuing unreleased solo tracks, quite possibly on the label he recently launched, Omnivore Recordings. The Scatman John film would take advantage of two catalogs at EMI: Larkin's European hits like "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)" and the songs of Jimmy McHugh, owned by McHugh Music, that Larkin would've played as a jazz pianist.
Biopics once required a star or at least a hot newcomer to play a legend to get a green light -- Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens or Tom Cruise as Phil Spector (a film that Cameron Crowe conceived in the late '90s but abandoned about eight years ago). "Walk the Line," the 2005 Johnny Cash/June Carter story starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon -- and the all-time highest-grossing musical biopic at $119.5 million-reinvigorated interest in such superstar stories as James Brown and the Beach Boys, but those films never materialized.
Instead, during the last several years cult artists have been the focus of biopics, many of which target niche audiences. This year's lone biopic with a release date, "Gainsbourg: A Hero," follows that pattern: The French film, which made $12 million in Europe, targets hipsters and Francophiles enthralled by singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg's work in the '60s and '70s.
Other movies benefit from well-documented stories. GK Films' King says he has seen the "Jersey Boys" musical more than 20 times in at least five different cities. "It's pure entertainment," he says. "We have to capture the essence of the musical but tell the story slightly differently. This is 'Goodfellas' with good music."
The story of Tupac Shakur, which Morgan Creek is doing with Antoine Fuqua directing and the hip-hop superstar's mother Afeni Shakur Davis executive-producing, is a much talked-about property. No one has been cast as the rapper-unknowns are being considered, and Soulja Boy told MTV he was asked to audition-but it could be in motion by summer's end.
Such a nonfictional hip-hop story might be attractive to film financiers. The semifictional "8 Mile," starring Eminem, was budgeted at $40 million and pulled in $116.7 million domestically in 2002. The 2006 film "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," loosely based on the life of 50 Cent, had a worldwide gross of $46 million and a production budget of $38 million. "Notorious" (2009), about murdered star Christopher "the Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, pulled in more money at the box office -- $36.8 million in the United States, according to figures tallied by Box Office Mojo -- than any other musical biopic of the last five years. But rap, despite the success of "8 Mile," is still considered a niche subject for many distributors.
Box-office results can be confusing in terms of what the public wants to see: "Ray," released in October 2004 after director Taylor Hackford spent 16 years researching the film, wrangling the rights for it and annually apologizing to Charles about it failing to secure financing, earned $75.3 million at the U.S. box office and earned Jamie Foxx an Academy Award. But Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin project, "Beyond the Sea," which started with director Barry Levinson in 1986 and wound up in Spacey's hands in 1997, made only $6.3 million.
"These days you are either below $10 million or above $80 million," says Randall Miller, who's directing and producing the Wilson biopic and writing one about CBGB club owner Hilly Kristal. "That's not to say you can't have a quality film and good actors, just that you need to be really frugal." Translation: You need the full cooperation of rights-holders to keep music costs down. ABKCO's Klein says that the combination of his holdings and the blessing of the Cooke family ensures that "this story is going to be told. It will not get lost in turnaround. We're not beholden to anyone-a rare position to be in." He intends to fund the movie, having already financed a script that he's taken to directors.
"I don't think I'll ever do a biopic [again]," "Ray" star Foxx told Billboard while promoting the recently released animated film "Rio," "unless something fantastic is happening with Marvin Gaye." It'll take superhuman effort to get the Gaye story told in full. Interest in his tale dates back more than 25 years when biographer David Ritz, author of the Gaye autobiography "Divided Soul," first optioned the book to Motown.
"Marvin's affairs were a mess when he died," says Ritz, who says he hasn't had any input in the many proposed films on the soul singer's life. The latest Gaye iteration, based on reports from U.K. trade publication Screen Daily, has Julien Temple directing a version of the story that covers the artist's years in Europe when he was working on his final album, "Midnight Love."
Focusing on a specific moment in an artist's life helps keep music licensing costs to a minimum. Such a tack was taken for "Nowhere Boy," the 2009 biopic about John Lennon's childhood and teen years. A similar film has been proposed about Bob Marley's year in London that would somehow be made without the songs from his albums at the time -- "Exodus" and "Kaya" -- due to the Marley family's disinterest in the film.
"So much people want to capitalize," Ziggy Marley says about some of the proposals regarding his father. The Marley family has tabled biopic offers for now, choosing to support a documentary by Kevin MacDonald ("Last King of Scotland") for Steve Bing's company Shangri-La.
"The documentary is from us-a much closer look at Bob's life because of my personal involvement," Marley adds. "Other people might do something, but that's not our thing. One day there might be a biopic but that's one day, not right now."
Half a decade ago, ideas for a Marley biopic had such names as Foxx, Lauryn Hill and Warner Bros. floating around, while a Gaye film was in the hands of Sony Pictures and Crowe, who spent nearly four years attempting to bring the singer's life to the screen. Ultimately, projected box-office numbers were deemed insufficient to cover the production costs of the Gaye film, which included a significant number of synch licenses, according to sources with knowledge of the project.
"A lot of 1960s movies have misfired," says filmmaker Kenneth Bowser, whose documentary about folk singer Phil Ochs, "There But for Fortune," was made with the help of the artist's family and finished last year with the financial support of concert promoter Michael Cohl. The film cost $1 million to produce with nearly two-thirds of the money covering music and archival footage. At one point Bowser attempted to go the biopic route. "Sean Penn tried to get a script out of the story-and I think it can still be done-but it's very difficult," Bowser says.
When music plays a crucial role, whether it's the Joy Division film "Control"; the fact-based "24 Hour Party People" about the rave scene in Manchester, England; or the fictional Oscar winner "Crazy Heart," music decisions were made early at the script level. That's the inverse of most fictional films, where the budget is used up and the money offered for synch licenses can reach laughable lows.
One way that independent filmmakers and documentarians avoid significant upfront costs is by acquiring "festival rights" to songs. These rights allow for the showing of a film at festivals or for small screenings for little to no money for the music. Fees are then negotiated for the songs. For fictional films, the music used for festival screenings is often replaced once the picture is picked up. The 2009 movie "Precious" is an example of such usage.
Festival rights are a significant money-saver for a film like "Of All the Things," laden with pop hits from the '70s and '80s.
But when the financing is found, the movie shot and the film finally released, "[biopics] are great performance vehicles for actors," Rosenberger says. "These are the kinds of movies that make people want to buy soundtracks."