Sam Cooke Getting Biopic Treatment (Exclusive)

Sam Cooke
Associated Press

Producer Romeo Antonio hopes to shine a new light on the hows and whys of the singer-songwriter's death.

The story of Sam Cooke, the soulful singer-songwriter behind such hits as "Wonderful World" and "Twistin' the Night Away," is getting the big-screen treatment that hopes to shine new light on the man's death.

Music and film producer Romeo Antonio has made a deal with Cooke's family to develop the movie project, with a script being written by Mary Krell-Oishi.

Cooke's family members L.C. Cooke and Eugene Jamison, one of Cooke's nephews, will function as consultants on the project, which the producer and some of the family are seeing as an authorized biopic.

That benefit comes with access to family documents and to people that were important in Cooke's life, not just surviving relatives but people such as Zelda Samuels, who was the singer's assistant. Antonio even did a five-hour on-camera interview with the now 84-year-old.

Antonio is also working with author B.G. Rhule (One More River to Cross: The Redemption of Sam Cooke) on the project.

Cooke's heyday was between 1957 and 1964, when he had 30 top-40 hits and worked with names such as Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. He also did something unusual for a black recording artist in those times, which was to take control of his own business affairs. After seeing others get rich of his music, he started his own label and owned his own masters and music.

Unfortunately, Cooke's life was cut short under dubious circumstances when he was 33.

He was found dead far from his home in Los Feliz, in a motel in South Los Angeles. Police reports had him kidnapping a woman and then attacking the manager, who reportedly shot him and beat him.

But Cooke's family and friends never bought that line and have for years contended there may have been a conspiracy to kill the person who was fighting for black musicians' rights and butting heads with mob-connected music executives.

In fact, it's that angle that caused Cooke's family to take interest in Antonio.

"For years, people have becoming at us to do a movie about Sam. But he was the first person who sounded like he wanted what we wanted: the truth to come out about my uncle and his death," said Eugene Jamison.

"It's the 60s, you could do it like Selma, but it's not the direction I'm going with," Antonio explained. "My pitch to them was a murder mystery. Who did this? And it's being written in that fashion."

Antonio is a former police officer who transitioned to the world of music, where he was a session player, ran his own label and is a recipient of an ASCAP award. He then segued into film and television.

Just as HBO's The Jinx reexamined old murders allegedly committed by Robert Durst and NPR's podcast Serial is relooking at the imprisonment of Adnan Syed, Antonio aims to make this movie shine new light on Cooke's circumstances.

"I am treating it like a murder investigation," he says.

ABKCO, the music and film label that was founded by Cooke's manager Allen Klein and that owns much of Cooke's music rights, has disputed the claim that the family is involved or that L.C. Cooke is working on the film.

"ABKCO Films is the only company authorized by Sam Cooke’s widow and surviving siblings to produce a biopic of Sam Cooke’s life," the company said in a statement to THR. "The film, currently being cast from a script written and to be directed by Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil In A Blue Dress, One True Thing) is based on Peter Guralnick’s best-selling biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick also wrote the script for Sam Cooke: Legend, the GRAMMY-winning long form documentary that ABKCO produced."

It also provided a statement from LC Cooke: “Reports that I am involved with or have endorsed any Sam Cooke film biography other than the one that ABKCO Films is producing are totally false. I have been working with ABKCO for many years and am looking forward to bringing Sam’s story to the public in the near future.”

Antonio shot back at ABCKO: "Saying 'the family and siblings' is 100% incorrect! Brother David, Phyllis (Cooke's sister) and Eugene completely back my movie!"

5:30 pm, March 18 Updated to include ABKCO's statement as well as Antonio's response.

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