10 Music Biopics we’d like to see

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With the release of F. Gary Gray’s new N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, the fall film season appears to be in full swing, and there are more biopics of musical figures still yet to premiere. Don Cheadle will debut his long-awaited role as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead in October, while Zoe Saldana will step into the role of Nina Simone not long thereafter (or so the tentative 2015 release date would suggest). But biopics are nothing new; for years, Hollywood has been doing its own behind-the-music recreations of rock star biographies, such as when Lou Diamond Phillips portrayed Ritchie Valens, Gary Busey took on the role of Buddy Holly, or Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, there are lots of musicians’ stories yet to be told in cinematic form, and we’ve created our own wishlist of music biopics, complete with our own fantasy casting and director picks.

Sun Ra

Sun Ra is the only jazz musician I know of that ever claimed to have landed on Saturn. That might just be the perfect opening scene for a film tackling the outlandish and stunning world of Sun Ra. Born Herman Blount, Sun Ra was a jazz pioneer, his career spanning from the hard bop recordings of the 1950s to his space-inspired free-jazz experiments of the ’60s and ’70s—which, admittedly, is a lot to cover. But juxtaposing scenes of his youth with an aging Sun Ra—arguably at the peak of his powers—in his greatest period of theatricality, incorporating elements from a belief in extraterrestrial life to Egyptology and Freemasonry, would probably be the most fascinating course of action. In that way, it wouldn’t be unlike the recent Brian Wilson pic Love and Mercy, though it would be drastically more surreal. I had a few directors in mind for this one, but I’d rather leave it open to the possibility of an as-of-yet undiscovered director with an Afrofuturist aesthetic. (This would, obviously, be different than the film that Sun Ra, himself, made—Space is the Place.) In casting Sun Ra in the ’70s, Samuel L. Jackson seems a strong choice, while I’d pick poet and musician Saul Williams to tackle the role in his earlier, 1950s era. The possibilities for such a cosmic presence are endless. – JT

Pussy Cats (the film)

The Beatles are such a musical history beast that, even though their time together only spanned a decade, it would probably be a career-ender to attempt a film that captured the band’s entire existence as a group. There’s just no way the audience’s expectations could possibly be met at this point. But what if we honed in on a specific era of one Beatle’s career? 2010’s Lennon Naked already highlighted John Lennon’s life between 1967-71, so what about a film that jumps in a few years later, diving deep into Lennon’s “Lost Summer” period and his recording sessions with Harry Nilsson that would become 1974’s Pussy Cats. We’d witness some of Lennon’s darkest years as he and Nilsson participated in a rather debaucherous period in both their timelines while simultaneously creating one of the most acclaimed post-Beatles pop-rock records of the time. For the role of Lennon, we’d attempt to erase Lennon Naked’s mistake of casting a talented-yet-aging Christopher Eccleston by swapping him out for a still-young Daniel Radcliffe, who is more than capable of capturing the wide range of joy, anger, depression and artistic brilliance needed for this role. And at his side we’d cast the Nilsson character to Zach Galifianakis because he has the chops to pull of the sort dark comedy nuances that would make this picture soar. For our director, we’ll go with a young, as-yet-undiscovered Darren Aronofsky-type, just to make sure nobody has too much fun. This is art, after all, and art is serious. – ATB

Fela Kuti

Nigerian-born Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti has the kind of biography that makes for great storytelling, no matter the medium. In fact, his life story is more or less laid out throughout his dozens upon dozens of releases, from his more lighthearted highlife fare in Koola Lobitos in the 1960s, on up to his politically oriented albums like Gentleman and Zombie, and the tragic raid of his compound that resulted in the death of his mother, as documented in one of his angriest recordings (which is saying a lot), Coffin for Head of State. Kuti’s life has already been the subject of a Broadway play, Fela!, and there was, at least a couple years ago, a plan to turn his life into a feature film. Steve McQueen was slated to direct, with the star of his Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role. Both backed out, unfortunately, but that’s such a perfect director/actor casting that I’m just going to go ahead and say that’s who should ultimately take on the role. Of course, at this point, it appears that won’t happen, but we can still imagine watching Ejiofor’s portrayal as Kuti from his days as a student in London, to his formation of Africa 70, and eventual role as Nigeria’s most outspoken entertainer and activist. A figure such as Fela deserves nothing less than a tour-de-force. – JT

Tom Waits

I’m convinced there’s a market—maybe a fractional, old-money audience, but an audience nonetheless—for a Tom Waits biopic. It would focus on the dramatic career transition he made in the early ’80s, when he shipped off his mentholated lounge-lizard persona and became the Brechtian avant-garde showman he is today. We’re talking lots of opportunity for magical realism, plus a romantic angle since Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan is credited as the catalyst for his rejuvenation.  The story might have a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart, which Waits scored, and how he met Brennan. But this feels more like a Wim Wenders project to me. There would be a lot of tin cans, confetti and ill-fitting hats, and I only trust Wenders with those items. – PP

Klaus Nomi

Musician, performance artist and all-around oddity of pop culture Klaus Nomi made a brief but notable splash in the ’70s and ’80s with his blend of new wave, opera and German cabaret, turning standards like “The Twist” and Marlene Deitrich’s “Falling in Love Again” into strange space-age confections. His life was tragically cut short in 1983, when he died from complications from AIDS, which would be a significant part of the film, but by and large, it’s hard not to envision a Nomi picture as a conceptual piece that puts a major emphasis on his visual aesthetic and the avant garde world he inhabited. The 1970s NYC backdrop, of course, would lend itself to numerous other roles for actors to portray the likes of David Bowie, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other such figures, but for Nomi himself, I’d choose Tom Hiddleston, who has built up an impressive resume in both theater and film (and from certain angles looks like he could disappear into the role). And I’d pick Michel Gondry to direct, both for his uniquely strange eye, and because he’s due for another hit. Nomi might not be the most famous artist here, but he’s one that seems a perfect fit for the big screen. – JT

G.G. Allin

You want a serious filmmaking challenge? Try to make the punk and outlaw country artist born Jesus Christ Allin palatable to the masses. There’s certainly plenty of material in his early childhood with a mentally unstable father, rebellious school years full of petty crime and cross-dressing, then the DIY music career that brought him in contact with the famous (Dinosaur Jr.) and infamous (John Wayne Gacy). Obsessed with returning rebelliousness to rock’n’roll, Allin went to hideous extremes to do so: fights with fans, a fascination with excrement, self-mutilation, lyrics offending anyone and everyone, and constant substance abuse that would ultimately kill him at age 36. There are great films that offer a sympathetic portrait of a less-than-sympathetic protagonist (see: The People vs. Larry Flynt), and others that don’t flinch from a grim story (I’m thinking Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). A GG Allin biopic would somehow need to do both. Maybe Todd Phillips could pull it off—his directorial debut was the GG Allin documentary Hated, and he would later find exponentially greater success with uncomfortable comedies like the Hangover trilogy and Old School. – AB

The Beastie Boys

The actual Beastie Boys once convincingly pranked fans and the press with a supposed casting of their own biopic featuring Seth Rogen and Danny McBride. Would it be funny? Sure, but we’re not sure those are the right dudes to truly capture the B-Boys’ essence. A proper Beastie Boys biopic would have to span at least a decade or two, showing how they went from being Def Jam’s “bad boy” act, complete with offensive (working) album titles and inflatable penises onstage, to their maturation into being outspoken about empowerment for women, spirituality and a free Tibet. In fact, it might be best to end the story in the late ’90s, around the organization of the Tibetan Freedom Concert, completing the cycle from anarchists to activists. A strong potential casting would put Jesse Eisenberg as Mike D, Ben Schwartz as Ad Rock, and, bringing the most gravitas the group, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as MCA. There’s really only one director who could do the film justice, however, and that would be the director of their most famous video, “Sabotage”: Spike Jonze. – JT

Kathleen Hanna

It’s no great secret that, even in 2015, mainstream American cinema is still left wanting for strong female characters depicted in feminist-minded ways. So what better way to even the scales just a bit by looking back at one of the most influential musicians in recent history? Kathleen Hanna’s life has been highlighted in the 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, but what if we dive deeper into her youth, upbringing and life in Bikini Kill, cutting out right as she stared Le Tigre? We’d get an awesome glimpse into the beginning of riot grrrl. We’d rely on Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) to give the film the grit and depth it would need, while tapping the talented Emma Watson for the role. (Watson has proven to be an outspoken feminist artist in her own right over the last decade, so we think she’s more than up to the task.) – ATB

Laura Jane Grace (of Against Me!)

A troubled teenage anarchist bullied by cops; a lo-fi folk-punk sensation turned relative superstar; a brave soul who came out as trans in a genre not known for being the most progressive in terms of non-normative gender roles or sexuality: Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! has a hell of story to tell. And, to sweeten the deal, she’s already proven to have a mind for film via her documentary web-series True Trans. So, it’s not much of a stretch to see her crafting a more personal look into her own story. Perhaps it kicks off with her writing the original lyrics to “Pretty Girls (The Mover)”, which directly referenced her gender identity, then scratching them out to replace them with a more generic treatment. then we flashback to her youth and take an emotional, empowering ride. Our recommendation for Grace’s casting? Jamie Clayton, who recently broke through on the Wachowski-directed Netflix series Sense8. And hell, while we’re at it, why not pin the Wachowskis as producers/directors as well, working with Grace herself to write the script, conduct casting, etc. – ATB

Pussy Riot

The musician biopic formula is pretty straightforward: Artist X overcomes Adversity Y to produce Legacy Z. But in the case of Pussy Riot, the adversity makes up most of the story. Due to the relative anonymity of the Russian feminist art-punk collective, this feature would likely be abstract and have a rather loose format, jumping between the group’s decision to form, their spontaneous protests, the resulting viral sensation, and the jail and trial of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich. For this one, I’d suggest a more avant-garde, pseudo-fictionalized adaptation along the lines of the season 3 episode of House of Cards in which the band played themselves (ultimately, and quite awesomely, ruining President Frank Underwood’s diplomatic dinner party). This set up would allow the band to make a deeper, more truthful statement without the need to disclose too much personal information about themselves. For this experimental endeavour we’d pair Pussy Riot with Alexandr Sokurov, but would be sure to prescribe this as a collaborative effort between him and band itself so as not to take creative control away from them. – ATB

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