Bio-Musicals: Interrupted Melodies

At long last, Hollywood is filming both the Jim Morrison and Josephine Baker bio-musicals, and more are in the works: Bobby Darin, Otis Redding, Libby Holman, Tina Turner, Rodgers & Hart. While hoping for the best, can we be blamed for fearing tie worst?


Memo to would-be movie supernovas Val Kilmer, Demi Moore, Whitney Houston, Lynn Whitfield, and Neneh Cherry: Time to bone up on personal best star turns by Gary Busey, Doris Day, Susan Hayward, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Sissy Spacek.

Why? Because, since each of these young troupers is favored to play the lead role in a showbiz biographical film musical, it's important they view the all-too-rare great work in a form that's likelier to produce Dennis Quaid's camp nightclub act in Great Balls of Fire. In this genre once dear to ticket buyers, Academy Award voters, and actors looking to jump-start their careers, Kilmer's leading the pack for director Oliver Stone, having adopted the black leather and smoldering vibe of singer-songwriter-poet-cult figure Jim Morrison in Stone's in-production bio of the late '60s rockers, The Doors. Meanwhile, Moore, in a bio-musical Ray Stark now has in development, is but the latest in a long string of names who may play Libby Holman, the tragic '20s torch singer, and various producers have touted Houston and Cherry to emulate music hall legend Josephine Baker, a role Whitfield will play first in the TV movie HBO's now shooting.

Of course, from the time movies learned to talk, sing, and milk tear ducts, "bio-musicals" have reduced the lives of the rich and famous to an irresistibly cheesy formula, no matter whether the subject was gangster-prone chanteuse Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me, weakling-and-bottle-prone singing actress Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow, gangster-prone Broadway and radio queen Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Funny Lady, dope-and-booze-prone jazz diva Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, pills-and-breakdown prone Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter, or rock 'n' roll's accident-prone frequent flyer of The Buddy Holly Story.

But, since the '60s, when studios heard the sound of no hands clapping for such mega-buck calamities as Star! (Julie Andrews playing Gertrude Lawrence) and Isadora (Vanessa Redgrave as the dancing Duncan), producers have tended to run the other way when it comes to actually making a musical biopic. Save for the occasional Leadbelly, Bound for Glory, Coal Miner's Daughter, Sweet Dreams, or La Bamba, today's savvy filmmakers put their talent into announcing plans to produce such films, then keeping us all in breathless suspense while changing stars, screenwriters, titles, and starting dates. Luckily, old genres die hard--1990 will surely light up the history books as the year Priscilla Presley launched her weekly whitewash series, "Elvis"-- so who knows, some of the following big screen bio-musicals may actually make it to a mini-mall movie complex next year.

The first new biopic to reach theaters should be Oliver Stone's as-yet-untitled Doors movie. Since 1971, when 27-year-old Jim Morrison died of heart failure in Paris, a soft parade of moviemakers has hoped to capture on film the fast-lane trajectory of rock's Dark Prince. In the early '80s, Morrison's kid sister, Ann, announced a Doors feature film that she would co-produce with her husband. Virtually simultaneously, John Travolta and Brian De Palma sprang up with their Morrison project, Fire, for Paramount. Glitz monger Allan Carr, along with Israeli producer Sasha Harari, optioned No One Here Gets Out Alive, the dubious Morrison biography by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman, mentioned as a possible William Friedkin project. Meanwhile, French-Canadian producers dreamed up Morrison Hotel, a fantasia that would speculate on whether Morrison had staged a bogus death and was actually alive and writing poetry in Paris. Rolling Stone summed up the fever with their cover shot in September 1981, captioned "Jim Morrison--He's Hot, He's Sexy, and He's Dead."

John Travolta's brief moment as a contender to play Morrison ended when Doors' camp members apparently blocked him, his would-be director, Brian De Palma, and producer Aaron Russo from obtaining rights to their songs. "John and I did discuss the idea," said producer Aaron Russo of the Paramount project at the time, "but dropped further consideration of the property after concluding that the obstacles were insurmountable." One can only speculate on whether those "obstacles" included how Travolta's abilities might have been over-taxed by attempts to convey Morrison's ferocious charisma, self-destructive hedonism, and a reported IQ of 146. (Doors drummer John Densmore put it this way: "My problem with Travolta was, he just looked too... sweet. Jim wasn't sweet. Jim was crazy.")

In 1985, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, co-chairmen and chief executive officers of Imagine Entertainment, Inc., announced plans to make Riders on the Storm, named for what was, arguably, the Doors' best known song aside from "Light My Fire." Although Morrison's saga should probably play closer to Sid and Nancy than to The Buddy Holly Story, Grazer stressed its "very inspirational" quality, and both screen-writer-director Ralph (_Ticket to Heaven_) Thomas and writer Bob (_Willow_) Dolman attempted to accentuate the positive in their script drafts. Grazer did not rule out Ron Howard as the director. Show me the way to the next whiskey bar.

Just when we feared Opie might slap happy faces on the Doors, Oliver Stone, on the bio-musical rebound after his long-delayed Evita lost its funding and star Meryl Streep, took on the project with Imagine and Carolco. To ape Morrison, Stone apparently favored Val (_Top Gun_, Willow) Kilmer over platoons of unknowns, along with such names as Tom Cruise, Jason Patric, Keanu Reeves, and INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence.

Apparently, Kilmer's sending Stone a 30-minute audio tape of himself singing, and appearing around town in Morrison drag helped convince Stone, who calls himself "obsessed" with Morrison, that he had found his Lizard King. Kilmer, who, we hear, will do his own singing, has apparently had a facial mole surgically removed to more closely resemble Morrison, but will he pull a De Niro by blimping out the way the singer did late in his life? Can you wait?

Stone will also produce Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess, Danny Sugerman's account of his tender years with Morrison and the Doors, which Stone calls "a kind of 400 Blows, with Morrison as a supporting character." Sugerman is adapting his book, but will Kilmer rate an encore as Morrison?

Bio-musicals about male show business figures generally presume that career obsessions muck up private lives. Remember Kirk Douglas blowing hot as Bix Beiderbecke in Young Man With a Horn, or Tyrone Power's photogenic suffering in The Eddy Duchin Story? That theme may go double for in-development movie projects about Otis Redding and Bobby Darin. The career of Redding, renowned for his growly, ballsy baritone on soul classics "Respect," "Try a Little Tenderness," and "Dock of the Bay," was fired by the singer-songwriter's fixation with crossing over to "white" music charts. In 1978, Phil Walden, owner of Capricorn Records and a childhood friend of Redding's, announced that The Otis Redding Story would take in his and the soul man's childhood friendship in the South during the civil rights era and end in Redding's death, at 26, in a 1967 plane crash en route to a concert gig. Teddy Pendergrass was first in line to play Redding.

Scripts by three different writers failed to advance the project beyond Big Talk. "We've already seen the stories about how the plane crash killed a guy on the way up," said Dale Pollack, production VP for A&M, the company which owns the publishing rights to Redding's music and is now attached to the movie, referring to the crash-and-burn fade-outs of Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and Ritchie Valens. "So the [challenge] was, how do you [make the Redding film] without ending up with what is another cliche?"

Cliches or no, Walden has agreed to serve as "consultant," and producer Malcolm Leo (This Is Elvis) recently scouted Georgia locations for the $10 million-ish budgeted project. Admitting he abhors the "typical Hollywood biopic" approach, Leo calls the movie, scheduled for production this year, "a triptych love story between Otis, his wife, and his public." To play Redding, the producers and director Bill Duke (1989's A Raisin in the Sun) hope to find "a spectacular actor, not a musician who acts." Leo says, "I can't think of anything more pathetic than to have an actor miming to existing tracks." Neither can we, except perhaps an actor miming badly to existing tracks. But are the vocal chops of such candidates as Eddie ("Put Your Mouth on Me") Murphy, Denzel Washington, or Carl Weathers up to anything but? Meanwhile, Terence Trent D'Arby or Roland Gift (_Fine Young Cannibals_) could make Otis the role of a lifetime.

On Borrowed Time, Hollywood's other driven-man fable, about singer-actor-songwriter Bobby Darin, is classic three-hankie stuff. Get the picture: Doctors inform the Bronx-Italian family of a cocky, fatherless kid that heart disease will kill the boy by age 16. By 24, Darin is the Grammy-winning crooner of "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife," a nightclub headliner, and the husband of Sandra Dee. At 27, he is the star of five movies in one year, one of which, Captain Newman, M.D., wins him an Oscar nomination. At 30, he learns that "sis" is actually his mom and that "Mom" is really his grandmother. At 37, Darin checks out, perhaps even before reaching his peak.

In 1981, Bob Reno and Steven Metz, administrators and publishers of TV and film music, paid $75,000 for the rights to a Darin biography by Al DiOrio. Metz entered a deal with his clients TAT/Tandem, owned by Norman Lear, to produce either a TV or feature film based on the singer's life. By 1982, the producers felt strongly enough about a script by Mark Giordino ("I don't want to do it as a musical," Reno said. "It's too inherently dramatic") to hold casting calls and meetings in New York and Los Angeles, spurning Paul Anka, Johnny Rivers, and Burton Cummings in hopes of finding an unknown. Although the project was temporarily derailed by such complications as having been denied the Sandra Dee seal of approval (apparently, the ex-Gidget refuses to have herself portrayed by name), Barry Levinson (_Rain Man_) is reportedly set to direct On Borrowed Time this year for Warner Bros. Levinson's involvement should surely help with a generation whose exposure to Darin is limited to "Mac Tonight" homages from McDonald's.

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