Lifetime is hoping fans of the late Aaliyah and Whitney Houston will deliver ratings gold when the network airs biopics about the singers’ lives and tragic deaths in the coming year.
Disney actress Zendaya Coleman, 17, best known for her work on the hit Disney show “Shake It Up” and a stint on “Dancing With The Stars,” will star in “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B,” while former “America’s Next Top Model” finalist Yaya DaCosta, 31, whose growing resume includes having appeared on “House,” “Ugly Betty” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” will play Houston in what one Hollywood casting director says are no-brainer subjects. “People are fascinated because with so many success stories comes tragedy,” says Jen Rudin, author of “Confessions of a Casting Director.”
Still, both castings have stirred controversy. Aaliyah’s uncle and former manager Barry Hankerson and Houston’s sister-in-law Pat Houston have both expressed dismay that the singers’ stories only warranted a made-for-TV movie and hinted at possible legal action.
Another Aaliyah family member, cousin Jomo Hankerson, further hinted at holding back control of master recordings, telling trade site The Wrap, “The rights and some images of the musical elements that we put together like the videos, and photo shoots … we can just withhold those elements from the production, which we would do.”
“It’s critical to get a family on board early,” says Jeff Jampol of JAM Inc., which manages the estates of Tupac Shakur, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. “But there is a double-edge sword if the [relatives] are trying ‘to protect’ whatever it is. The trick to creating [a successful movie or play] is capturing the magic and alchemy of an artist that attracts every successive generation.”
Lifetime says it picked the best people for the job: for Aaliyah, that’s executive producer Debra Martin Chase (“Sparkle”), who says, “This film will provide a heartfelt look at Aaliyah’s extraordinary and all-too-short life journey that we hope will provide inspiration to an entirely new generation. Aaliyah is beloved for her artistic grace and her wonderful spirit, and I’m looking forward to producing this film that will honor her legacy.”
For the Houston biopic, Angela Bassett, the late singer’s co-star in 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” is directing. She said in a statement, “Whitney Houston remains an icon who captured the love, imagination and hearts of us all. Having known and worked with her, I’m thrilled to share with the world how special a person she was. I’m honored to lead a film that will tell her captivating life story.”
As for fans’ reaction, which has been mixed at best, casting director Rudin notes that detractors should hold their criticisms until they see both Coleman’s and DaCosta’s performances. Further boosting potential for the projects, Lifetime recently received nine Critics’ Choice Television Awards, tying with BBC America among ad-supported networks for nods, and in 2013 received 12 Emmy nominations.
Whether or not the families end up playing a role in the making of the films, it is important that the movies should stay true to what went on in Aaliyah’s and Houston’s lives, good and bad. Says Jampol: “You can’t water down history. The best approach is authenticity. Try to clean or spin it and trouble starts.”