Movie biopics about beloved musicians are a tricky thing. They can be very good (Ray, Walk the Line) or very bad (The Runaways, Great Balls of Fire). And let’s not even mention some of the lame television movies and miniseries that have covered groups like The Monkees (where they are referred to as “The American Beatles” at least a dozen times). Looking back at the scores of musicians who have been the subject of a movie biography through the years, there are quite a few that are painfully missing. In light of REBEAT’s review of the lackluster James Brown biopic, Get on Up, and the generally unfavorable reactions towards Jersey Boys, here are five musicians who deserve a movie producer to tell their story on the big screen — in the right way, of course.
1) Roy Orbison
He was music’s other “Man in Black,” a mysterious figure with his dyed hair and dark sunglasses whose vibrato is still haunting us today on tracks such as “Crying,” “It’s Over,” “Only the Lonely,” and, of course, “Pretty Woman.” He was revered by everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen (who called him the “coolest uncool loser you’ve ever seen, sticking a knife deep into your teenage insecurities”). Yet for all of Orbison’s success, his personal life was wrought with tragedy: In 1966, his first wife died in a motorcycle accident and two years later, his two oldest sons perished in a fire. Health problems caused him to take a break from recording music for much of the 1980s. Then, just as he was finding success again as a member of the Traveling Wiburys and putting the finishing touches on a new solo album, Mystery Girl, Orbison died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 52. Where the anniversary of Elvis’ and Buddy Holly’s deaths are still recognized, it seems that Orbison has been practically forgotten. A movie about his life would help remedy that.
2) Cass Elliot
Mention “Mama” Cass Elliot today, and most people still think she choked to death on a ham sandwich — an urban legend that is completely untrue (the story of her voice getting raised by a few octaves after a pipe fell on her head, however, is accurate, according to an interview she gave Rolling Stone). It’s hard to imagine the Mamas and the Papas without her, but it nearly happened that way: Elliot had to work extra hard to get others to overlook her size. John Phillips originally didn’t want her as part of his group (originally called the New Journeymen) fearing that it would hurt the group’s image, but her voice eventually won him over and she helped create the band’s new name. Elliot’s bellowing vocals were often overshadowed by the runway-model looks of her bandmate, Michelle Phillips. It’s been colloquially confirmed that she suffered from an unrequited love for groupmate Denny Doherty — who’d known Cass since their days together as part of a quartet known as the Mugwumps — but who, in turn, was in love and had an affair with Michelle.
After leaving the Mamas and the Papas in the late ’60s, Cass embarked on a solo career to make over her persona. (She loathed the nickname “Mama,” and, in fact, both her last album and TV special were entitled “Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.”) She also became a mother in real life to a baby girl, Owen. A crash diet before a Vegas show in 1968 caused her to lose her voice and landed her in the hospital, but a few months later she was back on top, headlining her own television variety show and nightclub act which included show tunes. By the early ’70s, she was a regular on the TV talk and game show circuit.
She had just performed two weeks of sold-out concerts in London when she died of heart failure at 32 years of age. A beautiful voice and person was snuffed out way too soon.
3) Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke’s tragic death in 1964 at the age of 33 is still one of music history’s greatest unsolved mysteries. The official police record stated that he was shot to death by a motel manager who thought Cooke was trying to rob her. Cooke was staying at the motel with a woman named Elisa Boyer, whom he had met earlier in the evening. Cooke’s sister maintained that her brother, who was married at the time of his death, “…was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn’t his style.” And Etta James recalled in her autobiography years later that she viewed Cooke’s body at the funeral home and his injuries made him unrecognizable, far worse than a mere bullet hole.
Up until then, Cooke was creating an amazing legacy of music. “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “Wonderful World,” “Bring it on Home to Me,” “Having a Party,” “Another Saturday Night” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” were among the hits. A pioneer of soul, he inspired Aretha Franklin to pursue a music career, and was also actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement; his anthem “A Change is Gonna Come” is often cited as a theme of the era (although Cooke’s authorship is sometimes called into question). A proper movie biopic is long overdue to bring attention to not only his music, but his death, and rekindle interest in solving the case.
4) Janis Joplin
It seems that a movie about Janis Joplin’s life has been in the works for over 20 years now, although an Off-Broadway production that recreated her electric stage presence enjoyed recent success. Names associated with the lead role have included Lili Taylor, Renee Zellweger, and P!nk; the latest news is that Lee Daniels is preparing to direct a Joplin biopic with Amy Adams portraying the scratchy-voiced blues singer. (Bette Midler’s The Rose was loosely based on Joplin’s career, also.)
A self-proclaimed misfit, Joplin was perhaps music’s first female rebel that forced the public to take her as she was. In high school, she endured bullying by classmates for being overweight and speaking out against racism in her ultra-conservative, small Texas town. Being different (she went barefoot and braless in college and carried an Autoharp to classes) became her forte. Her powerhouse voice eventually led her away from Texas and into the swirling psychedelic counterculture of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. With sudden success, fame, and touring came a heavy addiction to heroin and alcohol. While she had several romances with men and women, one of her strongest relationships was with David (George) Niehaus, a former Peace Corps volunteer that Joplin met in Brazil in 1970. Niehaus didn’t use drugs, and it seemed that Joplin managed to stay dry during her time with him, but the relationship ended when they returned to the States and she returned to the needle. Later that year Joplin, became a member of the “27 Club” when she was found dead of a drug overdose.
5) Artie Shaw
Hey, who said that this list only had to include 1960s rock ‘n’ rollers? Artie Shaw was the bad boy of the Big Band leaders. The composer of “Nightmare” turned out to be one himself, with a horrible temper. He’d disband groups as soon as he formed them, and was married eight times; his wives included top Hollywood actresses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, who both described him as emotionally abusive. (Turner actually succumbed to a nervous breakdown before divorcing Shaw in 1940.)
Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky to Jewish immigrant parents, Shaw experienced anti-Semitism when the family moved to Connecticut, and would later say in his autobiography that the experience “had more to do with shaping the course and direction of my entire life than any other single thing that has happened to me, before or since.” His parents were against a musical career, but Shaw got a clarinet at 14 and practiced it for seven hours a day — until his teeth ached. To this day, there are compositions of his that are nearly impossible for even the most experienced clarinetist to duplicate note-for-note.
He was the first white band leader to hire a black female singer — none other than Billie Holiday. But after recording “Any Old Time” and touring with the band in the racist 1930s-era South where audiences were less than accepting (to put it mildly), she quit the group.
Shaw considered himself a musician, not merely a leader, and actually experimented with the Bebop sound before abruptly retiring from music in the mid-’50s. One of his achievements after he left the music industry was publishing a novel about American marriage called “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!”
Yeah, I would definitely shell out money to see a movie about Artie Shaw.