From “The Buddy Holly Story” to “Bird” and from “Walk the Line” to the current “Runaways,” the lure of biopics about famous music figures is undeniable: The performers and their stories come loaded with a built-in awareness factor, anticipation among fans provides ready-made promotional fodder and such pics have proven to be Oscar bait for both stars and filmmakers.
But for every “Runaways” or “La Vie en Rose” that makes it to the bigscreen — some reaping box office success, others not — there are at least a dozen projects that languish in development limbo or die due to licensing or other hurdles.
Like any film, music bio-pics face the typical Hollywood headaches — agreeing on a script, nailing down a workable budget, finding a marketing hook — but they’re also laden with particular biopic baggage, such as securing the cooperation of the subject or their estate, clearing performance rights issues and enlisting an actor to fill some awfully big shoes.
The roster of music biopics announced over the past decade reads like a who’s who of legendary performers: competing Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield features; a Miles Davis opus nurtured by Don Cheadle; Mike Myers as Keith Moon; Martin Scorsese’s take on Frank Sinatra; and long-languishing attempts to bring the stories of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Kurt Cobain to cinematic life, to name a few.
Any film about a real-life public figure takes on added risk. As one lawyer notes, the line between what is public and private is not always clear.
“Any time you make a story about somebody, it’s advantageous if they’re there and are part of it,” says John Linson, a producer on “The Runaways,” which is set to go into wider release April 9 after a muted opening. “Ultimately they’re going to go into business with people they believe are going to be respectful to them.”
Linson says the filmmakers labored for more than four years on “Runaways.” Getting cooperation from real-life band members Joan Jett (an executive producer on the pic), lead singer Cherie Currie and manager-impresario Kim Fowley certainly eased the way for a film that cost less than $10 million — a budget that was secured even before Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning came aboard.
Although 13 years in the making, “Ray” represented a perfect storm of complementary elements: a filmmaker, Taylor Hackford, familiar with the music biopic terrain (he produced the Ritchie Valens movie “La Bamba” and helmed the rock doc “Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”); an actor, Jamie Foxx, whose charisma matched the subject and who happened to be a classically trained pianist; and cooperation from Charles, who controlled rights to his music.
“The only reason we were able to make this film about Ray Charles was that Ray Charles controlled his own life and he said we could,” said Hackford in 2007. “If he died (before the rights were secured), there’s not a chance in the world that I could have told that story, because family members and estates tend to be very conservative.”
Denver billionaire and Charles fan Phil Anschutz was also key, having fronted the film’s $35 million budget after every studio turned Hackford down.
If the subject of a film project is no longer alive to help shape a biopic, their estates are often approached by producers and writers for access to private documents, photos and anecdotes that might provide fresh or additional insight.
“It can really ease the way, because they’re always going to know more than you’re ever going to find out,” says Jeffrey Jampol of Jampol Artist Management, which manages the Doors and the estates of the late Rick James, Peter Tosh and Gram Parsons. “And (they) know where the bodies are buried and who’s got little stories and secrets.”
One of the reasons estates and filmmakers don’t always see eye to eye on the direction of a film is that even though icons like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Joplin are no longer alive, their value as a brand continues to thrive, and the estate has a vested interest in maintaining that brand.
“You have almost a cognitive dissonance between the estates and film producers,” says Jampol. “Because, remember, I have a legacy to protect. And that legacy is hopefully going to be vibrant and alive, and thriving for decades after that producer’s dead.”
Sometimes, for convenience’s sake — as well as creative license — filmmakers end up eschewing real-life figures for fictional approximations, as with Bette Midler playing a Joplinesque singer in “The Rose,” or Jonathan Rhys Meyers starring as a David Bowie-like glam rocker in “Velvet Goldmine.”
Having an estate act as essentially a one-stop shop for access to a person’s private life and their music would seem to cut through a lot of red tape. But Don Passman, music attorney at the Beverly Hills law firm Gang Tyre Ramer & Brown, says that difficulties can often arise in situations where the family of the deceased artist controls the music. They can get involved in the creative process “in a way that the film companies may not like, or they want so much money for (the music) that it’s not economical,” he adds.
Indeed, cost is a central issue in such negotiations, especially when dealing with legacy recordings. Rights to the master recordings of the Who’s “My Generation” or the Doors’ “Break on Through,” for example, can run north of $1 million, depending on how they’re used.
Janie Hendrix, the sister of the late guitar icon, is CEO of the Experience Hendrix venture that handles his catalog and likeness. Rather than entertaining offers by potential filmmakers looking to make a biopic, she decided to reach out to specific filmmakers with whom she’d like to work. “The plan is to see if we have the same vision,” she says. “And we’ll go from there.”
Jampol and Hendrix say they’re not interested in whitewashing history. They simply want a balanced portrayal.
“We all knew Jimi experimented with drugs; it was the ’60s,” says Hendrix. “But on the other hand, he was a workaholic when it came to his music. We want people to really remember Jimi for his dedication and his gift to the world: his music.”
For the upcoming Doors documentary “When You’re Strange,” being released April 9, Jampol was also proactive, approaching producer Dick Wolf, with the cooperation of the surviving band members, with the eventual understanding that “this was going to be a director’s film,” recalls the manager. “And (Wolf) said we’re going to have to put everything in there, warts and all, and you’re not going to have that input. And that took a great leap of faith on our part.”
The pitfalls on the long road to biopic success are many. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers, intoxicated at the prospect of resuscitating an icon for contemporary audiences, to put out word that a biopic is a go without having all the necessary elements in place, thinking that if they go public, then everything else can be willed into being.
Cameron Crowe, who cut his teeth at Rolling Stone magazine and whose films reflect a deep pop-rock sensibility, has made diligence a mantra. The filmmaker behind such music-driven pics as “Singles” and “Almost Famous” has been working very quietly for three and a half years to align the key elements on a pic about Motown singer Marvin Gaye.
Despite securing extensive music rights and the full cooperation of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., the project, with Scott Rudin attached as producer, is being reconceived until Crowe and Sony can come to terms on a budget and a star (Will Smith, who has an ongoing relationship with Sony, declined the part after much discussion).
Crowe has been down this road before, but under different circumstances.
In the wake of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire,” he tried to get a Phil Spector biopic off the ground with Tom Cruise in the lead role. But Crowe felt at the time that “the third act had not been written” about the producer made famous for his “wall of sound” recordings, and segued to the more personal “Almost Famous” instead.
Springfield, the pioneering white soul singer known for her smoky vocals and blonde bouffant, is more shrouded in mystique than popular awareness. Although she was a leading female voice of the British Invasion, she’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and her life, which she kept intensely private, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the kind of fame-dissolution-redemption story arc that characterizes so many music biopics.
Nicole Kidman and her Blossom Films banner are still actively pushing forward on Springfield feature “The Look of Love,” according to her reps. The project is being developed with writer Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”). Another Springfield project is in development with Kristin Chenoweth attached to star for Universal and producer Marc Platt.
Progress on most musical biopics is generally achieved slowly, or in fits and starts.
Jeremy Barber, Cheadle’s agent at United Talent Agency, says the actor enjoys a partnership with the Miles Davis estate and is working with another writer to whip the script into shape, with the aim of shooting by year’s end.
And though Crowe would not discuss the particulars of his dealings with Sony about the Gaye feature, he says the project is very much alive.
“You don’t have to take a leap of faith to know what the power of this movie could be,” he tells Variety, “and it’s easy as seeing Marvin Gaye’s continuing influence; it’s everywhere.”
Just as Janie Hendrix envisions a movie about Jimi, Crowe wants his Gaye biopic to be music-centric.
“It’s all about getting the contact high in a movie theater that you can get from music,” Crowe says. “A record can change your life. Somebody poured their life into that little piece of music. To me that’s a hero.”