I don’t know what happened today exactly to force John Singleton (following Antoine Fuqua) off the Tupac Shakur film. But I can guess since Tupac’s mom is listed as a producer of the film. She controls the rights and maybe the likeness of her little boy. And even though he had a violent life, and cursed a lot, he’s dead now, and of sainted memory. You can throw veracity out the window. In Mrs. Shakur’s mind, Tupac should probably be played by Carlton from “The Fresh Prince.”
For years and years now, different groups of people have tried to make films about Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, and many others. What stopped them? The heirs. They don’t want the “real” story told about their iconic family members.
Of course, the “warts and all” is what made “Ray” by Taylor Hackford so great. Can you imagine if Ray just said he had a headache, and took some aspirin? If the artist or their family is realistic, then the movie can work. Tina Turner was disarmingly so for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” The Sinatra family was surprisingly open about Frank for HBO’s current Alex Gibney movie, which is why it’s so good.
But when the facts of life are too much to take, a film goes sour. That’s what happened to the James Brown, “Get On Up.” Great performances, but the story was so watered down it made no sense.
This doesn’t happen for historical figures. But for musicians, where music rights are necessary, this is a problem. Ronnie Spector will probably never be able to tell her life story because Phil Spector controls the music that would go along with it. And when that happens– all too frequently– it’s off to Lifetime or wherever. We never did see the Marvin Gaye story, “Sexual Healing,” because the producers couldn’t get Marvin’s Motown hits. Playing the title track over and over would get monotonous.
This is even a problem on Broadway. Berry Gordy got to tell his “Motown” story because he owned the rights to all the music. Yoko Ono made up a story for her “Lennon” music and had all the songs because she had her rights– but the story was preposterous and the show died. The Beatles control their music, so “Beatlemania” and “Let it Be” jukebox musicals tour with their imprimatur. If Paul McCartney didn’t like the shows, they’d be gone. You have to give Carole King credit for allowing “Beautiful” to be made, even if some major plot points are missing.
It’s too bad. The things that make superstars break from the pack and transcend the culture are the elements that make a great story. But once the Wonder Bread and mayonnaise come out, you can pretty much forget it. I hope Carl Franklin enjoys his run.