Why Music Biopics Are a Nightmare to Make

Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley in "Greetings From Tim Buckley"

Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain: As part of THR's second music issue, a look at how a complicated tangle of rights is preventing their stories from being filmed.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For decades, music and movie people have circled each other, wary as cats, yearning to grab a bit of one another's glory. Sometimes there's enough glory to go around, as proved by smart, successful biopics like 8 Mile, Ray or Walk the Line. But the genre's path to success is treacherous and littered with turnaround casualties. So why is there such a sudden rush to churn out biopics of pop musicians? At least 15 projects are in the works, including John Ridley's All Is by My Side, starring Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) as Jimi Hendrix, with guitar parts executed by Waddy Wachtel. Director Cynthia Mort is editing Nina, starring Zoe Saldana as soul legend Nina Simone, and Terrence Howard is attached to star as the doomed Marvin Gaye in Lee Daniels' Midnight Love, which producers intend to shoot this year.

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In CBGB, Malin Akerman as Blondie's Deborah Harry duets with Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop, blending their voices with historic 1970s recordings from the punk-epicenter club. Rupert Grint, best known as Harry Potter's redheaded pal Ron Weasley, punks up to take a turn as The Dead Boys' Cheetah Chrome. "Rupert's in a dog collar -- as far from Harry Potter as possible," gloats director Randall Miller, who aims to release the film independently in the fall through his Unclaimed Freight Productions.

Making biopic magic happen takes some wizardry. "Biopics are extraordinarily difficult to do," says Peter Ames Carlin, a biographer of Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen, whose Hollywood efforts haven't yet taken flight. "If the guy's still alive, you've also got to get his or her life rights to ensure maximum cooperation and guard against lawsuits." When singer Duffy Bishop had a 1991 hit musical called Janis in a little theater in Seattle, the Janis Joplin estate sued and shut it down, asserting exclusive rights to Joplin's "voice, delivery, mannerisms, appearance and dress and the actions accompanying her performances."

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After a $3 million countersuit, the suit was settled. Says Carlin, "Just imagine the pressure to whitewash or to build the story around some important-only-to-the-subject-and/or-his-loved-ones angle." One filmmaker who tried to make a Hendrix biopic with the singer's sister Janie Hendrix, president and CEO of Experience Hendrix Llc., says she ordered him to sign an affidavit that Jimi never used drugs. "Never happened," snaps Hendrix, who's working on her own movie about her brother. "Several musicians approached us, but they're all too old," says Hendrix. "We really look at finding an unknown [to play Jimi]." Joplin's sister Laura Joplin has said she wants to downplay sex and drugs in the singer's life story and to play up her sibling's little-known side: wit, domestic yearnings and math-nerd membership in her Texas high school's Slide Rule Club. What's missing from Janis' image? "Her intellect," said Laura in 1991, working on a biopic that's still not done.

Given such crisscrossing agendas, the vast majority of biopics never reach the screen, and those that do often are compromised. Ridley's Hendrix project failed to clear the rights to use the legend's songs, instead using material Hendrix covered, by Muddy Waters, for instance. And at present, it appears that Tom Hanks' film biography of Beatles manager Brian Epstein might not have the Fab Four's music, since the only project that has secured song rights is producer Vivek Tiwary's competing one, The Fifth Beatle. "There's a tangle of rights: music publishing rights, life rights," says Charles R. Cross, a biographer of Kurt Cobain and Hendrix. "And what script do you use? There's not ever just one Janis Joplin movie, there are four or five." Right now, two movies about the rock shrieker are in the works: Sean Durkin's Joplin, with Nina Arianda and rights to 21 Joplin tunes, and Daniels' Get It While You Can, with Amy Adams. In previous years, Zooey Deschanel and Renee Zellweger were attached to Joplin films, and the urge to portray her lives on: Juliette Lewis bitchily tweeted Oct. 18, "Ummm not to be biased but Amy Adams playing Janis Joplin? Can u think of someone who's a little more suited to play [this] role? I can. :)" Evan Rachel Wood replied, "I can think of at least two people."

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"I tried for 20 years with four or five different producers to do the Janis Joplin movie," says writer-director Penelope Spheeris, recently hailed by rocker-turned-filmmaker Dave Grohl as his greatest inspiration. Now working on the DVD release of her punk classic The Decline of Western Civilization, she says: "I did a brilliant screen test with Pink as Janis and Jeremy Renner playing [rock entrepreneur] Travis Rivers." Nina director Mort also had a brilliant idea for a Joplin film. "Did you ever see the screen test with Brittany Murphy?" Mort asks. "She was incredible."

But all the talent in the world might not suffice to get a movie bio made. "People who understand the music business don't really get the film business," says Spheeris. "It's almost like they're mutually exclusive. I tried to do the Ozzy Osbourne movie, the Jimi Hendrix movie, the Johnny Rotten movie. I got a call the other day from David Dalton, who wrote a Janis bio. He's dealing with guys who have some music rights, and in the background you can hear his wife screaming: 'All of this is going to come to naught as usual, David! Stop talking about it!' I'm fascinated by people's behavior when they think there's a gold mine there. They become so despicable."

Spheeris and others think the biopic genre might be played out. "Now there are biopics everywhere," complains Mort. "You can go on Google and get information on anybody. I didn't think I had a movie until I realized there was a love story there, between Nina and Clifton, who's a composite of the men in her life. I never wanted to do a linear, traditional biopic."

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"Biopic! It sounds like something you'd see on a slide in a class you'd be better off skipping," sneers Daniel Algrant, director of Greetings From Tim Buckley, which stars Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley, the musician who came to fame at a memorial concert for the famous father he never knew. "Biopics like Bird or Ray just become so predictable. People want to see what they don't expect, something that's hard to do and true." Algrant says his film, coming in May from Tribeca/Focus World, is no biopic but an innovative narrative duel between father and son (a structure that, coincidentally or not, resembles that of the 2001 book by David Browne that popularized the Buckleys' story, Dream Brother).

Algrant's film is in a duel with a project by West of Memphis director Amy Berg, backed by Jeff Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert. "It's not a biopic, it is a glimpse into the heart, mind and music of one of the most profound poets of my generation through his journals and unreleased candid moments," says Berg, who vows to "hopefully dispel the myths surrounding his life and death [by drowning in 1997]." Naturally, Berg also is making a Joplin film.

Perhaps the Darwinian combat between biopics is forcing the genre to adapt in positive ways. Oren Moverman, whose fragmented Cobain biopic script was nixed by Working Title and Universal in 2011, got a warmer reception for his oddly structured Brian Wilson script Love & Mercy. Maybe one of these decades, Laura Joplin will discover a Janis script so fresh, she'll finally say, "Action."

"Why does anyone try to make music movies?" says Carlin, who answers his own question. "The rock world bristles with cinema magic: rags-to-riches stories, plus sex, drugs, dissolution, then the almost inevitable return to glory. All set to popular music with the mojo of an already beloved figure to stoke Oscar talk. It's gold, Jerry! GOLD!"

Twitter: @timappelo