Music's Next Great Biopics

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FARROKH BULSARA (a.k.a. Freddie Mercury)

No one wants to talk about a Marvin Gaye movie. Or one about Janis Joplin, or a Jimi Hendrix biopic.

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.

See Also: 13 Cool Music Docs for 2011

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.


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."