It took 10 years, at least seven leading ladies, and too many false starts to count, but a biopic about Janis Joplin is coming to the big screen. That news became final last week, when Variety announced that The Gospel According to Janis — a $10 million indie directed by Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) and starring Elf’s Zooey Deschanel — is slated to start shooting in Philadelphia in early November.
It’s been an exhausting cinematic journey for Joplin — who died in 1970 at age 27 from a heroin overdose — and one marked by a frantic race between two competing productions. (The folks behind Capote and Infamous can surely sympathize.) For years, the front-runner was Paramount’s Piece of My Heart, which cycled through a slew of potential Janises like Melissa Etheridge and Courtney Love, and seemed closest to being made in 1999 when Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) was briefly signed to direct Brittany Murphy.
”They had the money, the stars, and the studio,” says Gospel producer Peter Newman of his rival project. ”But they didn’t have the music.”
Lakeshore Entertainment, which is producing Piece of My Heart, didn’t return calls for comment, but music clearances were a significant issue for its production. Why? Well, their movie had the rights only to Joplin-recorded hits written by other artists, including ”Piece of My Heart,” whereas Gospel owns the bulk of Joplin’s original songbook and has the blessing of the Joplin estate.
With dibs on the catalog, Newman’s production leaped ahead of its competition and nailed down that elusive confluence of star, screenplay, and financing. Having previously considered Lili Taylor and Pink, the producers ultimately cast Deschanel in the role after hearing her sing at last year’s Independent Spirit Awards. (The vocally trained actress will belt out the tunes herself for the flick.) And the script — which takes place on the last day of Joplin’s life — came from David Dalton, who adapted his own 1991 Joplin tour diary and taped interviews. ”David knew her really well,” says Deschanel. ”So it’s a very loving portrait.”
Of course, it still may not end up being the only one. Although Piece is in turnaround at Paramount, other studios have been eyeing the project, and Joplin fan Renée Zellweger, who has long been attached, remains keen on playing her fellow Texan. And if the last decade has taught us anything, an obsession with Janis is a hard habit to break.