Hollywood hot for music biopics

Mon Jun 6, 2011 8:33am EDT

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LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Biographical films about music icons often go through lengthy development periods.

Changes in directors, writers and stars are common -- witness projects involving the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson and the Mamas & the Papas that have kicked around for decades.

Here is a look at 12 projects in various stages of development, along with the one ("Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life") that actually has a solid release date.

JAMES BROWN

The latest: A film about the Godfather of Soul was in the works before his death in 2006 with a script that had already been rewritten once. Spike Lee boarded the project within days of Brown's death and Wesley Snipes was fitted for the cape, vest, and conked hair. Two years ago, Lee said Snipes would sing as well. The film has moved to a back burner at Paramount -- perhaps because Snipes is serving time on income tax evasion?

Prognosis: Another "Ray" -- a film with a long road ahead.

JEFF BUCKLEY

The latest: Jake Scott ("Welcome to the Rileys") will direct the untitled biopic, penned by Ryan Jaffe, about the rising star, son of late folk icon Tim Buckley, who drowned in 1997 at age 30. Michelle Sy ("Finding Neverland") and Orian Williams ("Control") are producing; Buckley's mother Mary Guibert is the executive producer. Principal photography is scheduled for the fall and "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson has been considered for the lead.

Prognosis: Likely to be made; distribution will be another story.

SAM COOKE

The latest: Producer Jody Klein, whose company ABKCO owns the soul singer's recordings and publishing, commissioned the team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("Across the Universe," "The Commitments") to pen a script. Klein has been taking the finished script to directors for a few months. ABKCO intends to finance the film.

Prognosis: A go project that, with the right star -- there have been rumblings about Anthony Mackie, and Ray Lavender announced a few weeks ago on his Twitter feed that he got the part, but there's no confirmation -- could be an Oscar contender.

BRIAN EPSTEIN

The latest: Executive producer and writer Vivek Tiwary says he has the $25 million needed to make this film about the Beatles' late manager as well as the rights to 6-10 Beatles songs. He has listed "All You Need Is Love," "A Day in the Life" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" as already cleared. The script covers Epstein's life from 1961 through 1967, the year of his death.

Prognosis: Beatles music in a movie means Paul, Ringo and the estates have approved it. If true, there should be no problem getting this made.

ARETHA FRANKLIN

The latest: Franklin told USA Today she has secured "financial and creative control" but to date has not provided details. She has gone on talk shows ("The View," "Wendy Williams," "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon") and expressed an interest in having Halle Berry (who passed on the project in January, saying she can't sing) and Patina Miller from the Broadway musical "Sister Act" to play the young Queen of Soul.

Prognosis: As a TV movie it's likely, but creative-control issues lurk.

MARVIN GAYE

The latest: After decades of stops and starts with different stars and directors, Screen Daily reported in February that British documentary filmmaker Julien Temple ("Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten") would tackle the story of Gaye recording his final album, "Midnight Love," in Brussels, as well as his friendship with the Belgian promoter Freddy Cousaert.

Prognosis: As proposed, this is not the biopic fans want to see. It would have to play extremely well at film festivals to get distribution.

SERGE GAINSBOURG

The latest: Released in the U.K. last summer, "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" will hit U.S. screens on August 31. Eric Elmosnino stars; Joann Sfar directed and wrote the script. It is the only biopic on a release schedule this year.

Prognosis: A box-office gross of $5 million would be astounding.

PEGGY LEE

The latest: Reese Witherspoon announced in August that she has secured Peggy Lee's life rights and music rights, and had tapped Nora Ephron would write and direct. Witherspoon would produce and, if her schedule allowed, star as the 1950s songstress. Witherspoon has since taken on two other acting-producing jobs.

Prognosis: Witherspoon's announcement came out of the blue and was immediately greeted with skepticism - when would she have time to do this? There have been no follow-up reports since the initial announcement.

BOB MARLEY

The latest: Director Jenny Ash is developing a film based on Marley's year in London, 1977, theoretically circumventing the need for Marley recordings. Greenacre Films is producing.

Prognosis: The Marley estate has declined to give its blessing, making this a very, very tough sell to a distributor. If it gets made without music, it will be a tough sell to a large audience.

QUEEN

The latest: Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon created Queen Films to participate in the movie with GK Films partners Graham King and Tim Headington. Sacha Baron Cohen stars as Freddie Mercury in script from Peter Morgan that is being worked on. The band's involvement, combined with an emphasis on their less-prolific '80s era, will ease access to recordings.

Prognosis: As real a movie as there is. Hollywood Records presumably has a marketing plan in place around its reissue of the group's catalog this year.

TUPAC SHAKUR

The latest: Casting sessions to find an unknown to play the slain rapper apparently proved fruitless: Soulja Boy told MTV in May he had been approached to audition for the role. Antoine Fuqua will direct the Morgan Creek production; 2Pac's mother, Afeni Shakur-Davis, is an executive producer.

Prognosis: Very close to definite, but the budget will likely hinge on whether 2Pac is portrayed by a star or an unknown.

FRANK SINATRA

The latest: The team is coming together at Universal Pictures, including director Martin Scorsese and producer Scott Rudin. It's four years away, though, as 2015 is Sinatra's centennial. The Sinatra family, which controls the music and his image, has all rights under a single roof.

Prognosis: The start is easily three years away, plenty of time for other projects to arise. Everyone will want this to be perfect.

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