From the Magazine

Why Are Biopics So Hard?

From Jimi Hendrix to Hank Williams to Aaliyah, bringing an icon to life on the big screen is always fraught

André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in All Is by My Side

The recipe for a music biopic should go something like this: Start with a beloved musician; add a string of crowd-pleasing hits; mix in a good dose of backstage drama; hit audiences with a triumphant and/or fatal finale; roll credits. But actually getting a film into theaters? It's never been that simple — and as several pending biopics have demonstrated lately, it's not getting any easier.

For every movie that finds its ideal match (see: Sissy Spacek as country legend Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter or Jennifer Lopez as Tejano-music star Selena), there are countless others kneecapped by casting before the first scene is shot. The need for star power, performance chops, and a physical resemblance leaves filmmakers with ''a lot of boxes to check,'' says Debra Martin Chase, exec producer of the upcoming Lifetime biopic Aaliyah: Princess of R&B (working title). Disney starlet Zendaya Coleman, 17, won the role of the R&B singer, who died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22. ''It wasn't a situation where we cast her because she's hot,'' adds Chase. ''She has Aaliyah's spirit.'' But that decision generated harsh blowback from fans who felt that the biracial teen is too light-skinned for the part — a criticism that actress Zoe Saldana has also faced for her role in an upcoming, much-delayed Nina Simone biopic. (That casting choice inspired the sarcastic Twitter hashtag #BlackBiopics, with users suggesting their own pairings, such as ''Robin Thicke as Marvin Gaye.'')

There's also the question, of course, of the actual songs. Reese Witherspoon might not have won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in 2005's Walk the Line if filmmakers hadn't gotten the rights to June and her husband Johnny Cash's famous catalogs. Securing the music rights is often a lengthy and costly endeavor, and may even stop or halt production — as it nearly did for the Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is by My Side, due this year. Experience Hendrix LLC (headed by the late rock icon's sister, Janie) declined to license any of his music, leading writer-director John Ridley to frame his movie as an impressionistic art-house drama centering on the brief period Hendrix (played by OutKast's André Benjamin) spent in London — and ending just before his breakout moment at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. ''This is a story about relationships,'' Ridley told EW earlier this year. ''If there are folks who just want the music, there are record stores for that.''

Focusing on a particular time is one way filmmakers work around the myriad biopic obstacles. Angela Bassett will make her directorial debut with an upcoming Lifetime movie about Whitney Houston, and she's limiting it to the singer's early years and her relationship with singer Bobby Brown. There will be no depiction of Houston's later downward spiral or her death at age 48. ''I really just want to tell a story about a boy and a girl who fell in love,'' Bassett, who recently began filming with lead actress (and America's Next Top Model alum) Yaya DaCosta, tells EW. ''We're not interested in dragging her life again through the muck.''

That's not to say that drugs will be completely absent in Whitney Houston: ''We can't tell their story without it,'' says Bassett. The traits that so often accompany great talents — depression, drug abuse, the general danger of a life lived at full throttle — also make for good drama. But an unflinching, warts-and-all portrayal can alienate the subject's family; that's one of the rumored reasons that long-awaited films on Gaye and Janis Joplin have yet to emerge from seemingly endless turnaround. (A rep for Lee Daniels, the latest in a long line of directors who have attempted to transfer Joplin's life to the big screen, declined to comment for this story.)

With major-studio financing increasingly difficult to secure, some filmmakers are taking matters into their own hands. Actor Don Cheadle launched an online campaign to raise funding for a film on jazz musician Miles Davis, which he plans to direct and star in. ''If we weren't crowdfunding, we would have to cut out scenes or characters that we feel really need to be in the movie,'' Cheadle said on his Indiegogo page, which as of press time has raised nearly half of its $325,000 goal. A biopic on Hank Williams starring Thor's Tom Hiddleston is still in the works, though his grandson Hank Williams III has reportedly expressed displeasure at having a Brit play the role. Midnight Rider, the story of rocker Gregg Allman, is on hold following a tragic train accident that killed a crew member in February. (Star William Hurt dropped out of the project in April.)

And yet filmmakers aren't giving up. Universal has the James Brown biopic Get On Up (out Aug. 1), and it just slated Straight Outta Compton, about N.W.A rappers Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the late Eazy-E, for release next year. There are also reportedly projects in development about Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. After all, there are lots of great true stories to tell — if only Hollywood could figure out how to tell them.

Originally posted Jun 26, 2014 Published in issue #1318 Jun 27, 2014 Order article reprints