Hollywood loves to look to real life for inspiration, especially when it comes to the madcap lives led by some of history’s greatest musicians. Each year, there seems to be another film focused on some iconic music personality, whether it’s Johnny Cash (Walk the Line) or Ray Charles (Ray), Hank Williams (this year’s I Saw the Light) or Miles Davis (Miles Ahead). We can’t help but wonder, however, how some of our favorite artists have yet to have their eventful life stories get the big-screen treatment. Here are a few musicians they should make biopics about, and why.
1. Syd Barrett
The story of Pink Floyd’s first frontman, Syd Barrett, who specialized in psychedelia and nursery rhyme lyricism, is one of rock music’s greatest tragedies. The iconic singer, whose sexually liberated image heavily influence the glam-styles of future stars like David Bowie, was eventually booted out of Pink Floyd due to psychological issues, likely caused by a history of mental illness and a heavy helping of drug-use. Barrett briefly worked at a solo career, releasing two albums before returning to his hometown of Cambridge and retreating into self-exposed exile. His madness inspired one of Pink Floyd’s greatest albums (Wish You Were Here), so it could easily inspire a film focused on how Barrett’s personality and past allowed him to create such influential music while simultaneously destroying him.
2. John Lennon
Few have dared to tackle the life-story of any Beatle in a narrative film yet, let alone a high profile one, and John Lennon, the tortured artistic soul of the group, seems like the perfect place to start. The ideal biopic might focus on his time in the ’70s, after the Beatles had broken up, when Lennon continued to struggle with his own violent tendencies and personal traumas while maintaining a public image to promote peace. The duality of his tortured private life and his enlightened public persona would make for a fascinating contrast. This period also includes a year and a half wherein Lennon separated from wife Yoko Ono from 1973 to 1975, when Lennon got drunk with folk singer Harry Nilsson, had an affair with his former assistant, and signed the papers that finally, formally dissolved the Beatles.
3. Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is now recognized as one of the early masters of the Mississippi Delta style of blues, based solely on the recordings he made in the 1930s, shortly before his death in 1938 at the age of 27 (making him a founding member of the “27 club“). Details of Johnson’s influential life are rare and shrouded in legend, including one that tells how he gained his musical talents by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. It would be easy for a truly creative director to make an unconventional biopic about Johnson, blending the man and the myth, fact and fiction, into one whole, and leaving it to the audience to decide what really happened during Johnson’s short, hard life.
4. Frank Zappa
There has never been another musician like Frank Zappa, who created a diverse range of music as a solo artist and with his band the Mothers of Invention, ranging from avant-garde chamber music to demented doo-wop, from jazz fusion to goofy, self-aware rock. Despite his sometimes spacey music, he was a vocal critic of the ’60s-counter culture and an outspoken fighter against censorship, even once speaking in front of the U.S. Senate on the issue. Zappa directed music videos, participated in political activism, designed album covers and produced more than 60 albums in his lifetime, his workaholic tendencies sometimes overwhelming his collaborators. A biopic that takes on the prolific life of Zappa would likely work best as a time-skipping story comparing the many facets of Zappa’s life, creating a final product as varied as his own music.
5. Louis Armstrong
A biopic about Louis Armstrong, the gravel-voiced trumpeter from New Orleans who helped to define jazz, would have no shortage of material. In his early years growing up in New Orleans, he learned to play trumpet by ear and was briefly taken in by a Jewish Lithuanian family who gave him work and food, as he saw how they were discriminated against by other white folks, inspiring him to wear a Star of David for most of his life. Armstrong worked with multiple brass bands, becoming one of the first to play extended solos and injecting his own personality and emotions into his playing. He moved between Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, playing for powerful men and women, including an associate of Al Capone’s. The associate would later help him straighten out his troubles with the mob and the law (he was convicted of marijuana possession) when he fell on hard times in the 1930s, after finding brief success playing for the Hollywood elite in LA. That’s enough material for several films alone, and I’m not even anywhere near his death in 1971.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf