Filmmakers fight to make music biopics

What sounds great in theory is an uphill battle

Music biopics are such heavily trod turf these days, one could almost be excused for thinking Dewey Cox, the fictional main character played by John C. Reilly in Jake Kasdan’s “Walk Hard,” was some dredged-up cult legend known only to music geeks and record collectors. In the film (written with Judd Apatow), Kasdan laid bare every cliche in the songbook, from the resentful first wife to the spiritual awakening. But the rags-to-rock-to-riches formula shows no sign of losing its allure.

Obviously they can’t all be “Ray” or “La Vie en rose” (they might be “Stoned” or “El Cantante”), but directors and producers of every stripe hold the conviction that their take on said musical genius will result in alchemy: gold at the box office and Oscar gold come February.

Maybe because the public is so personally invested in these iconic figures, news of the latest biopic in development seems to get more press than some films already in release. Last fall, the Internet was buzzing with talk of Kirsten Dunst playing Debbie Harry, and Elijah Wood playing Iggy Pop. Directors were attached, the subjects gave their blessings, and a year later … nothing.

Rumors about an Ang Lee-directed Dusty Springfield project, starring Charlize Theron and, even more titillatingly, supermodel Kate Moss as her lover, were quickly doused by Lee. Oddly, no mention was made of the two Dusty Springfield films that actually are in development, one starring Kristin Chenoweth and the other a Nicole Kidman vehicle penned by “Hours” scribe Michael Cunningham.

Kidman and Cunningham are a proven team, but even when all the pieces seem to be in place — as with the Janis Joplin project at one time linked to Zooey Deschanel and rock chick director Penelope Spheeris — hot properties can suddenly find themselves indefinitely on the back burner.

Why is it that these stories, so good on paper, often fizzle out before they’re immortalized on film? The most logical reason would seem to be the costs of licensing the music, but as Doug Mark, principal of Mark Music and Media Law, points out, even at $100,000 per song for the publishing and recording rights, these fees aren’t prohibitive in the scheme of Hollywood financing.

Clash of intentions

Mark blames the same thing that gets in the way of so many projects: creative differences — in particular the clash between the goals of the studio, which typically wants a product with mass appeal, and the creators, who want to paint a realistic portrait of their subject. And Mark has firsthand experience with this very struggle, having worked to hammer out a film deal for his clients in Motley Crue since their tell-all book “The Dirt” came out in 2001.

“It’s been torture!” he says. “Motley Crue is a band that has a really gritty book that was a hit, and yet people want a smoothed-over script. … Rock ‘n’ roll that makes a good movie is hardcore stuff!”

Nobody need tell this to Bill Gerber, who’s developing a biopic about hard-living Who drummer Keith Moon and cites the dark Joy Division film “Control” as a favorite. Although the Moon script has been through two drafts with “Sid and Nancy” scribe Alex Cox, Gerber, working with Roger Daltrey and documentary filmmaker Nigel Sinclair, says, “Now we believe we need to go more independent and find a British screenwriter and keep it more organic.”

He’s quick to add that because of the close involvement of Daltrey (whom he calls the film’s “spiritual guide”) and Pete Townshend, the project has few limitations.

But when the sole owner of the rights is deceased and there’s a big brand at stake, as with Jimi Hendrix, those who control the estate might feel the need to sanitize the story, however well-known it may be.

Hendrix’s stepsister Janie, president of Experience Hendrix, says that while a biopic was definitely planned for the next couple of years, any projects proposed so far (involving big-name stars like Lenny Kravitz and Andre Benjamin) haven’t had the “vibe” the family wants.

“It’s not about drugs,” she says. “It’s not about women. It’s really about his music, his legacy and his life. We want the director to capture Jimi’s life but also to honor what our vision and what the family’s vision is. This is our one-shot chance. Once it’s done, it’s done.”

She adds that Experience Hendrix’s current focus is restoring and editing a concert film of Hendrix’s Royal Albert Hall appearance, which the family expects to use as a launching pad for the biopic. “We’re very much producers in our own right,” she says.

Estate sale

Involving the estates at such fundamental levels also has proved essential to two other well-publicized projects, both scheduled to shoot in the second half of 2009.

The aptly named “What a Wonderful World,” a Louis Armstrong biopic that Forest Whitaker will both star in and direct, came together under almost magical circumstances. Producer Ed Pressman, who’d been developing the project for years, recounts how he approached Whitaker just as he was getting ready to shoot “My Own Love Song” in New Orleans with “La Vie en rose” director Olivier Dahan. The actor, who portrayed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” not only embraced the idea, he brought Alain Goldman (“La Vie en rose” producer) and scriptwriter Ron Bass onboard, a team that clinched the deal with Oscar Cohen, executive of the Armstrong Estate, who joined as an executive producer.

Says Pressman: “The serendipity of Goldman being involved seemed to make a lot of sense (to Cohen). … I know that he’d been approached by a number of other people before me, going back more than 10 years, and for one reason or another no one was ever able to make an arrangement.”

The planned Miles Davis vehicle for Don Cheadle was in fact the brainchild of Davis’ estate, which very deliberately decided to expand its brand with a biopic, on the heels of the success of “Ray.” “Basically there was Don, and there was Don,” recalls Darryl Porter, who manages Miles Davis Properties LLC in Hollywood, about the discussion about who might play the jazz legend. Cheadle not only physically resembles a younger Davis, he was also a jazz saxophonist. And he needed little convincing; the actor will not only make his directorial debut with the film, his company Crescendo Prods. will produce with Porter and Davis’ nephew Vince Wilburn.

Porter acknowledges that there are other projects out there, but there can only be one “official” one. Again, because the estate is involved at the production level, any rights issues are a moot point. “We control the masters and the publishing along with Sony,” Porter explains. “We bring the music to the table.”

And this film, which Porter describes as a “deconstructed biopic,” will not just appeal to “jazz heads. … Our goal is to have a very broad audience and bring in a whole new demographic of Miles fans.”

Whether this plays out as a Cheadle vehicle or via less-traditional means (such as promoting the project through posthumous collaborations between Davis and hip-hop artists — one idea being tossed around) remains to be seen.

“We took our time to put it together,” Porter says, “and we’re still taking our time to do it the right way.”

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