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Ten Musicians Besides James Brown Who Deserve Biopics

Ten Musicians Besides James Brown Who Deserve Biopics
Universal Pictures

The trajectory of the life of a rock 'n' roll star and the Hollywood movie go hand in hand. Our protagonist is often a tortured genius, raised from the gutter to the glitz and glamour of fame, drunk on its toxic alchemy of drink, drugs, and destructive romance. There might be a sense of a life wasted, an element of martyrdom about their end, or even better, a comeback. The excesses of stardom are nixed in favor of a simpler life where the protagonist finds comfort in walking their dog on the beach over snorting mountains of white powder.

The new James Brown biopic, Get On Up, set for release today, should provide examples of some of the above and then some. Born in a shack in Georgia, and raised for a time in a brothel, Brown exploded from the southern "chitlin circuit" scene, breaking new ground in music, performance, and badassedness. Against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam and civil rights era, the "Godfather of Soul" became a spokesman for black America, creating challenging, exhilarating music, frenetic live shows while sporting increasingly wild costumes and hairdos. There is of course the darker side -- substance abuse and car crash relationships -- and an element of career twilight redemption in there to boot. It's surprising that Hollywood didn't latch onto this sooner after his 2006 Christmas Day death.

Here's a list of other artists whose larger than life antics could provide fodder for Hollywood.

See also: James Brown Killed Dumb Biopics: Why the Messy Get On Up Gets It Right

Cass Elliot

The Mamas & the Papas remain one of the most evocative acts of '60s West Coast flower power hippidom. In Cass Elliot, the quartet had one of the most powerful voices of the era and one who broke the mold for what was acceptable for female singers. She was overweight, outwardly confident, witty, and had vocal range that blew her waifish contemporaries away.

Cass Elliot was also a working single mother and was allegedly involved with string of suitors including Donovan, Peter Tork, and John Lennon. Her Beverly Hills villa was a hub of '60s excess, hosting parties that the likes of Jack Nicholson, David Crosby, and Grace Slick regularly attended. When the Mamas & the Papas broke up in the late '60s, it was Elliot who emerged as the break out star with her gorgeous rendition of "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

However, there was also the murkier side to her stardom. Though on the surface Elliot was brash and assertive, beneath there was a desire to be slim that success only embellished. Dangerous crash diets and drug addiction ensued, highlighted by a disastrous Vegas performance where, clearly very sick, she was unable to complete a show, to the boos and heckles of the crowd, and the acid pen of music critics.

Her tragic death in 1974 at 32 after a series of sellout shows in London should also be cleared up. The pervasive myth that the songstress died choking on a ham sandwich fits too neatly with the media's nasty perception of her. In this sense, a biopic could provide just reverence to an artist of impeccable talent.

Possible players: Melissa McCarthy, Michelle Williams

 

Bob Marley

Though there have been rumors over the last few years, it's amazing that there hasn't already been a major biopic about the reggae legend. The son of a white plantation overseer and a teenage Jamaican gospel singer, Marley grew up in extreme poverty in Trenchtown, Jamaica. We of course know about the music, songs of faith and resistance that struck chords with not only the oppressed in Jamaica, but also Europe, Africa, and the United States, before his tragic death at only 36 in 1981.

However, there's the story of Marley as the story of Jamaica itself, striving to find harmony from a colonial past, and struggling with a present dominated by sectarian gangsterism. Marley survived an assassination attempt, had to resist cooption by self-serving ideologues, and was a peacemaker who was able to bring the country together more than any politician. It's a story that has elements to those of Che Guevara's or Muhammad Ali's.

A warts and all biopic would no doubt have to cover his flaws too -- his tendency to philander, his political naivety, and some of the dodgy company he kept. However, a humanizing treatment of the international legend might make his achievements seem all the more remarkable.

Possible Players: Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def

The Ramones

Not just the Ramones, but the whole era of the late '70s NYC punk scene hasn't been given just coverage by Hollywood (last year's CBGB sucked more than disco). Unpretentious and leather-clad, the Ramones rode the subway beneath the squalid filth of a decaying New York City in the late '70s to be at the forefront of a scene that defied the city's plight. The creeping hand of its current gentrification and the glossy emptiness of the state of post-millennial pop culture would make such a movie even more poignant.

Possible Players: A-list Hollywood celebs lending their acting chops to play Joey, De-De, Johnny and the recently departed Tommy wouldn't feel right. A group of young unknowns would likely fit the bill.

 

Syd Barrett

The most famous recluse in rock history, psychedelic rock's golden boy and most tragic casualty, Syd Barrett's genius and demise remain shrouded in mystery. The Barrett-led Pink Floyd of the late 1960s were the furthest out of the gluttony of psych-rock bands of the era, and made most of them seem utterly square in comparison.

However, eventually His LSD assisted breakdown led to bizarre on stage appearances, and an increasing dislocation with the band and eventually society in general. After Barrett left Pink Floyd, he gradually left the music industry (after a couple of awesome solo offerings), finally moving in with his mother in the late '70s (Barrett allegedly walked the 50 miles between his apartment in London to his mother's house in Cambridge).

Fans would often seek out Syd, only to be told by his mother that he didn't want to see them, putting his brief, brilliant tenure in the music industry well and truly behind him. If Hollywood avoided its penchant for cliché and style over substance, this could be a fascinating film.

Possible Players: Cillian Murphy, Jonathan Rhyes Myers

Robert Johnson

Heralded by later legends as the greatest ever player of the blues, Robert Johnson's career remains one of the most mysterious and intriguing of any. Born in Jim Crow era Mississippi, Johnson drifted between gigs in Southern towns, occasionally busking on street corners or in front of barber's shops and in ramshackle juke joints.

Women and whiskey provided the fuel for the drifting virtuoso. And of course there is the legend the Johnson sold his soul to the devil to better play the Delta Blues, a legend likely born from the guitarist's tendency to rehearse in cemeteries at night. His death too has prompted similarly macabre tales -- one being that the husband of a woman Johnson had been flirting with at a bar poisoned his whiskey. The only thing that transcends such myths is the music itself.

Possible Players: Chadwick Boseman, Jamie Foxx

 

Bessie Smith

Few artists in the history of music possessed a voice as goose pimple-inducing as jazz and blues legend Bessie Smith. A familiar tale of rags to riches, Smith grew to prominence in the Roaring '20s and Depression Era '30s, her emotive warble chronicling the spit and sawdust of gin-soaked barroom brawls, unfaithful lovers, and halcyon nights of Harlem vaudeville at its peak.

Smith was a successful black woman in a white man's world, the highest paid black performer of her day, and probably more successful than any black entertainer male or female that had come before her. Like her friend Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith was bisexual, operated successfully and largely on her own terms when the parlance of the times suggested things should be otherwise. A sad end again, Smith was killed in a car crash in 1937.

Possible Players: Queen Latifah

Fleetwood Mac

Not that being dead is a prerequisite for a movie biopic (though it helps), the Rumours era lineup of Fleetwood Mac might provide a story more appropriate for daytime soap opera than a movie. The backstory before the album is itself, is one that belies belief. Frontman Peter Green had slipped into acid induced breakdown and quit in the late '60s, replacement guitarist Jeremy Spencer left one day to join a religious cult, a second replacement was promptly fired after having an affair with drummer Mick Fleetwood's wife, leaving the band's survivors barely surviving at all by the mid '70s.

By the recording of Rumours in 1977, it seemed odd that the tumultuous relationships of the band's current members would tear them apart for good. Bassist John McVie and singer Christine McVie were at the point of divorce, exacerbated when Christine began dating the band's lighting director. New members, Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham, had breathed new life into the band, but also added to the disarray when they began ending their own fiery romantic relationship. Adding fuel to the fire were the copious amounts of drink and drugs being consumed, like, all of the time.

What came out of this was one of the most successful albums in the history of rock music. Triumph born from adversity -- isn't that what Hollywood's all about?

Possible Players: Josef Fiennes (Mick Fleetwood), Kirsten Dunst (Stevie Nicks), Jaoquin Phoenix (Lindsay Buckingham) Clive Owen (John MvVie), Christine McVie (Naomi Watts)

Dolly Parton

Allegedly Dolly Parton's family was once so poor that her father paid the doctor who delivered her with oatmeal. From these humble beginnings to her recent Glastonbury Festival performance, this would undoubtedly be a biopic high on the feel good factor, eschewing the clichéd arc of drugs, divorce, and downfall, for a saccharine tale of a singer who has become the most honored and prolific female artist of all time. Parton has consistently proved to be an actress of considerable talent to boot, so could no doubt fill her own cowgirl boots quite comfortably.

Possible Players: Reece Witherspoon, Dolly Parton

 

David Bowie

Though last year's The Next Day proved that Bowie is still going strong in the sixth decade of his career, a biopic would be enthralling viewing. A Lord of the Rings-esque trilogy would be needed, each movie focusing on a different part of his career -- Part 1: Swinging Sixties to Ziggy Stardust, Part 2: The Thin White Duke to the Berlin years, Part 3: Let's Dance Era megastardom to triumphant elder statesman. It's all there, Bowie living the sex drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle more successfully than most, dipping into self-imposed exile and bouncing back with completely new personas every few years.

The supporting cast would include a host of eccentrics; Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Angie Bowie, and Brian Eno. The costumes would be awesome, from Ziggy Stardust glam from outer space, to bleach blonde metrosexual of the Glass Spiders tour, and most importantly, the music would be fantastic.

Possible Players: Benedict Cumberbatch

Carlo Gesualdo

His Wikipedia entry describes Renaissance Italian Carlo Gesualdo as: "an Italian nobleman, lutenist, composer, and murderer." Supposedly, Gesualdo found out that his wife was having it off with a local duke, so under the guise that he was on a hunting trip, he stabbed them both in their beds, with the help of his servants. To add insult to industry, Gesulaldo dressed the duke in a woman's nightgown before displaying the mutilated lovers to the public.

As a nobleman, he was immune from prosecution, but the murder influenced his later work. The words "love," "pain," "death," "ecstasy," "agony" have all been used to characterize it. Though his compositions went relatively unnoticed in his lifetime, over the centuries, composers paid homage to the homicidal lutenist's work, noting its emotive and technically difficult qualities.

Possible Players: Mads Mikkelsen

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