As music fans, lovers and aficionados are perched and waiting for “Get On Up” and “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” one can’t help but think of musical biopics that have been previously released. This blog was prompted and inspired by a chat with, and query from my wife, as to how many films of this nature have been done — there are numerous. While many are excited for the lives of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix to grace the silver screen, the lives of other music icons have been brilliantly depicted. (click on photo above for full view)
Among them, in no order of preference, this is the quintessential list of the ones I believe are the FUNKIEST…
“Ray” and “LaBamba” — both directed by Taylor Hackford, shows us the lives of Ray Charles and Richie Valens well portrayed by Jamie Foxx and Lou Diamond Phillips respectively. Foxx got a “Best Actor” Oscar for his role and was actually anointed by Charles himself. The two of them sat at the piano together, as Charles displayed to Foxx dynamics of his style. It was Hackford’s work on “LaBamba,” that was instrumental in the decision process for Ray Charles, Jr., to allow him to do the movie.
“Amadeus” stars Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham. Directed by Milos Foreman, Abraham snagged a “Best Actor” honor ala the Academy Awards for his role as “Antonio Salieri.” I actually got to give him props in person, while strolling the streets of New York one day, he was very gracious. The year before “Amadeus,” he played the character “Omar Suarez” in “Scarface” — a brilliant and versatile thespian.
“The Doors” — starring Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, Kyle MacLachlan, Frank Whaley and Kevin Dillon — Oliver Stone transports the viewer to the era of time when the band began, rose to stardom and fell apart. There’s not a single poor performance among the entire cast, that also includes rocker Billy Idol and Kathleen Quinlan. I just watched it for the umpteenth time about two weeks ago.
“The Runaways” is based on the lives of Cherie Currie and Joan Jett about the ’70s teenage band of the same name. Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon star in this fast paced flick about what it takes for chicks to be rock stars, in a male dominated industry. The Runaways had the hit “Cherry Bomb,” before Jett became the front woman for her band The Blackhearts — “I Love Rock-n-Roll” never gets old.
“El Cantante” is a fantastic depiction of the boom of the salsa movement and FANIA Records in 1975 ala the life story of Hector Lavoe. Starring Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, it was moderately embraced, because many were not happy about aspects of how it displayed Lavoe’s drug addiction. Additionally, there are some who don’t accept Puchi, as Lavoe’s real wife. Making the movie was one of the best business ventures that came out of Lopez and Anthony’s union. Both the film, and their TV show “Q’Viva! The Chosen”, were grossly under-rated http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2012/03/06/latin-funk-ala-qviva-the-chosen/. It marked Lopez’s second among the biopic genre, her first being “Selena,” which was a “breakthrough” performance for her.
“Lady Sing the Blues” — I remember the night my mom went to the drive-in movies to see it. “Can I go” I said, as I LOVED going to drive-in movies, “it’s for adults” she said as she had also expressed for “The Godfather.” I don’t remember which came first but they were both released that year, from the moment I was denied, I couldn’t wait to see them both. It was 1972, over thirty years later, they’re both among my all time favorites. Starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, it was executive produced by Berry Gordy. “This is my money,” I’ve heard Billy Dee say in more than one interview, referring to Gordy when he – an actor – lent advice about the film’s production. Ross was nominated for an Academy Award, but it was Liza Minnelli that walked away with the coveted golden statue that night, for her performance in “Cabaret.” Cicely Tyson was also nominated that year for her role in “Sounder,” which she played opposite Paul Winfield, who was nominated for “Best Actor” — he lost to Marlon Brando for “The Godfather.” However, three black actors were up for Oscars that year, it was still a victory. Although the film didn’t get Oscars, it was recognized at the Golden Globes, where Ross won the honor for “Best New Star of the Year — Actress.” She, Williams and the film were all recipients of NAACP Image Awards for “Outstanding” actress, actor and motion picture, respectively.
“Walk the Line” is the story of one of the baddest men to ever grace country music. Joaquin Phoenix stars as “The Man in Black” along with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter and Ginnifer Goodwin as Vivian Cash. Based on Johnny Cash’s book, although it was well received, Joaquin’s performance was slightly overshadowed due to the success of Foxx in “Ray” the previous year. However, it’s the highest grossing movie amidst the genre. Phoenix scored an Oscar nom for his portrayal.
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” — Long before they paid homage to the King of Country music, all hailed the Queen, when the music genre was still called Country & Western. Sissy Spaceck took home the Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynne. She was another that actually worked with, and took guidance and lessons, from the actual legend she was portraying. Movie making was at a pivotal stage at that time, as Dustin Hoffman explains, in the clip below.
“The Buddy Holly Story” is one of the earliest films, among the musical biopic genre, that laid the blueprint for how they are done today. Although Gary Busey had leading roles in movies prior to this, it was his first starring role, on which he built his career. “Great Balls of Fire” is based on the life of another early rock-n-roll star, the story of Jerry Lee Lewis, it stars Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder.
Angela Bassett scored her first and only Oscar nomination thus far, for her portrayal of Tina Turner, in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Although she didn’t win an Academy Award, she did take home a Golden Globe for her efforts, and is another actress that worked with the legend she was portraying. Based on Turner’s book of the same name, Laurence Fishburne took on the role of Ike Turner, giving the world a new view of the R&B legend. A definite highlight of my entertainment career, was meeting Tina and interviewing Ike.
“Notorious” was a questionable title for the story about Christopher Wallace. Old Hollywood thought it was sacrilegious to give it the same name as the classic, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, that starred Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Given the fact that Wallace was known as “Biggie Smalls,” then later the Notorious B.I.G., Sean “P. Diddy” Combs thought it was perfect and made it happen. Watching this film was surreal for me, as I actually worked in radio, throughout the rappers short-lived magnificent career. I can remember getting his first Uptown records single “Party & Bullshit” at WBLS like it was yesterday. The day after he was murdered I was driving on route 80 (NJ)… Hot 97 was playing his hits back-to-back, I thought, “Is it his birthday?… no that’s not for a couple of months yet,” then the DJ cracked the mic breaking the news that he had been shot.
“Sid & Nancy” is based on the life of Punk Rocker “Sid Vicious.” Born John Simon Ritchie and later known by the name John Beverley, he was an English bass guitarist and vocalist, most famous for his years with the Sex Pistols. Nancy Spungen was his girlfriend during the Pistols heyday, and the movie displays the dysfunctional, destructive relationship between them during that era. It was Gary Oldman’s second major motion picture.
Honorable mentions go to: “Bird” directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie; “Sweet Dreams” based on the life of Patsy Cline starred the beautiful Jessica Lange; “La Vie en Rose” tells the story of French singer Edith Piaf, who was an international presence for France, during and after World War II; “American Hot Wax” about disc-jockey Alan Freed, who took a lot of flack for playing what was then called “Race Music”, which was music by black artists. He produced live shows with black talent. He was later condemned and ostracized for taking “payola”, which is commonplace in radio today, via “legal” means; “I’m Not There”, a unique biopic about Bob Dylan, that used several actors to portray him for different periods in his life, I like Cate Blanchett’s section the best; “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”, the story of Frankie Lymon that stars Larenz Tate, Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox, and Lela Rochon (married to director Antoine Fuqua http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2014/07/21/44-funkalicious-favorite-filmmakers-storytellers/ ); Hip-Hop mogul Russell Simmons’ produced biopic, about his journey, released in ’85 about his rise. Before Def Jam became a million dollar entity, Blair Underwood played the role of “Russell Walker”, the introduction of his career for “Krush Groove”. There’s a ‘Krush Groove’ reunion on August 22nd in NYC, more details here https://www.facebook.com/events/1528563580700503/; A childhood favorite of mine that also documented a band’s ascent to stardom is the classic “A Hard Day’s Night”, starring The Beatles; lastly “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”, a spoof on the music biopic genre, it’s written by Judd Apatow and Jake Kasden. Kasden also directed the movie, that stars John C. Reilly, Jenna Fischer and Tim Meadows.
“Dreamgirls” and “The Rose,” are two films that emulate the Motown legacy and the life of Janis Joplin respectively, but are not actually based on either. The dream biopics for me are “Nat and Natalie: The Cole Legacy” — my own inventive title, it would be a three-hour epic, depicting the lives of Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole. Years ago, I asked Natalie in an interview about a movie being made about her dad, she told me it was her mom — Nat’s widow — who was opposed to it. “Eddie Murphy was after me for the longest time about doing that,” Cole expressed — the quote is not verbatim. She explained to him that Maria Cole was not down with the vision. Maria was a jazz singer who performed with Count Basie and Duke Ellington in the 1940s, and was married to Nat for 17 years, until his death in 1965. Mrs. Cole joined Nat two years ago — she was 89. The uniquely designed Capitol records building in Los Angeles, California, is the house that Nat built, as the funding for it came from revenue that he created. Nat is the first black entertainer to have a televised variety show. It debuted on November 5, 1956, and was called “The Nat King Cole Show,” it aired on NBC. The actual first “African-American” to have a TV variety show was Ellis Haizlip — for more on that go here: http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2012/09/20/mr-soul-ellis-haizlip/. At this point, Natalie herself, has an amazing story too. A top R&B singer during the ’70s, she won two Grammy Awards for her debut album “Inseparable,” in 1975. She suffered from substance abuse for years while still recording, took time off, returning in 1991 with “Unforgettable… with Love.” It features renditions of songs her father made famous, as well as a duet with him, on the title track. She’s since released more albums singing standards, and just last year she took another page from her dad’s musical book, garnering three nominations at the Latin Grammy Awards for her CD “Natalie Cole En Espanol.” Nat did at least two albums in Spanish, that I know of, as they’re part of my personal music collection. I can listen to the voices of Cole and Ella Fitzgerald ALL DAY. A biopic about Ella would be amazing — as well as films based on the lives of Otis Redding and Dinah Washington. Tony Award winner Lillias White did an Off-Broadway show about Washington in ’98, titled “Dinah Was,” so there’s a story already written. “This Bitter Earth” and “What A Difference a Day Made,” are unequivocally two of the best vocal jazz performances ever, and close to my heart.
Aspects of both “Get On Up” and ‘All By My Side’, have some hoping and wondering if they’ll do each of the icons justice. Early on in the production process, Spike Lee was set to do the JB flick, with Wesley Snipes in the title role. Producer Brian Grazer, who wanted Lee at the helm, lost the rights to the project and production took a different road. Starring Chadwick Boseman (“42″) and directed by Tate Taylor, who did “The Help,” click here for details as to why changes were made http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2013/03/17/the-drama-behind-the-scenes-of-the-james-brown-movie/. As for the story about Jimi, the Hendrix foundation calls the shots on the rights to the Seattle, Washington native’s music, and won’t let go. Starring Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 of OutKast fame, the film in tribute to the legend, won’t feature any of his hits. It’s because of this, that a movie based on his life, took so long to be released in the first place. Showtime did a Hendrix story back in 2000 starring Wood Harris that lacked luster due to this blatant omission, in addition to other dynamics, watch it if you really have time to KILL and make your own evaluations. A music biopic that many are concerned won’t do the artist justice due to the casting choice is the story of Nina Simone. In development for years with Mary J. Blige, the production company flipped, and cast Zoe Saldana instead. Shown at Cannes earlier this year to acquire distribution, the film’s director is suing the production company, see more on those details here http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/zoe-saldana-nina-simone-bio-pic-to-premiere-at-cannes-film-festival-and-a-lawsuit-is-filed . The film on Simone also stars David Oyelowo, as Simone’s Paris-based manager Clifton Henderson. A love story about the beloved late jazz musician and classical pianist, it depicts her rise to celebrity and love affair with Henderson. Mike Epps takes on the role of Richard Pryor in the movie. UPDATE 10/ 10/ 14: A month or so ago it was announced that Epps will now portray Pryor, in the biopic of the comic legends life, by Lee Daniels. Go here for an interview with India.Arie on her comments about “Nina” and the topic of “colorism” http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2013/04/17/dont-funk-with-india/
Currently in production in Cincinnati, is the long awaited biopic on Miles Davis. Starring and directed by actor Don Cheadle in his feature film directorial debut, it also stars Ewan McGregor. This is a project that has been talked about for YEARS and has finally come to fruition http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2012/06/20/miles-gets-a-stamp-antione-will-direct-don/. Shooting in Atlanta is the story of Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah http://museumofuncutfunk.com/2014/07/19/queen-latifah-is-the-empress-of-the-blues/ that will air on HBO next year. Epps is also featured in “Bessie,” as Smith’s “love interest,” Richard Morgan. There are even two more biopics forthcoming to television on Whitney Houston and Aaliyah. Both projects are slated to air on the Lifetime channel, I believe their stories are more than worthy of theatrical releases, as each of them were very influential on pop talents of today. Angela Bassett makes her directorial debut for “I Will Always Love You: The Whitney Houston Story.” Almost needless to say, but just because Houston and Haughton will be depicted on the small screen, doesn’t mean their lives can’t come to the big screen later on.
“Lifetime has chosen to go ahead with the movie about Whitney in spite of my family’s objections,” Cissy Houston, 80, told Entertainment Tonight in a statement. “No one connected with this movie knew Whitney or anything about her relationship with Bobby.” She continued, “In the two years since Whitney’s death, many people have stepped forward to speak about their close relationship with her. I find it difficult to believe people who knew and supposedly loved her would participate in a movie about her done by folks who didn’t know her. We are exhausted by the continuing misinformation and comments offered by people who did not know her. Please, please let her rest.” The movie now in post-production will feature Yaya DaCosta as Whitney.
UPDATE 8/ 1/ 14 — F. Gary Gray is shooting “Straight Outta Compton” presently too. Based on the group N.W.A., here’s Universal Pictures description: “In the mid-1980s, the streets of Compton, California, were some of the most dangerous in the country. When five young men translated their experiences growing up into brutally honest music that rebelled against abusive authority, they gave an explosive voice to a silenced generation. Following the meteoric rise and fall of N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton tells the story of how these youngsters revolutionized music and pop culture forever the moment they told the world the truth about life in the hood and ignited a cultural war.” Wendy Williams talked about aspects of casting being racist on her talk show. See what she meant here… http://theybf.com/2014/07/17/wtf-why-is-the-casting-call-for-straight-outta-compton-so-blatantly-racist. Universal responded saying: “the filmmakers … did not approve and do not condone the information in this casting notice. We regret and sincerely apologize for being in any way associated with the offensive descriptions it contained.” Basically they were not happy that the information was leaked, but aspects of casting remained the same, that’s “Show Biz.”
Lastly, a clip on the long awaited biopic on Marvin Gaye surfaced online, nearly a year ago. Starring Jesse L. Martin in the leading role, “Sexual Healing” focuses on his latter years, living in Europe; recording his last big hit; his tumultuous relationship with his father; and tragic death. Several websites posted stories on the film, but these days there’s only one, where you can still see a grainy version of the clip http://www.okayplayer.com/news/marvin-gaye-biopic-teaser-video.html. As to when the movie will hit the silver screen, or even be seen anywhere, is up in the air.
To see gross figures for musical biopics, go here: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=musicbio.htm
for the LOVE of Music Icons and their stories