13 Black Musicians Who Deserve Biopics Straight Outta Hollywood
Black-led films have dominated the box office for five weeks in a row. After only three weeks after release, Straight Outta Compton became the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time. Let's face the music: Audiences want to see black stories told on screen. And they want them done well.
Compton's success is a result of its ability to shed light on heretofore underexplained phenomena: Ice Cube's ascent to mainstream success, the difficult birth of Dr. Dre's Aftermath record label and Eazy-E's death from an AIDS-related illness. Their collective and individuals struggles and triumphs finally found cohesion in one film.
N.W.A's story isn't an anomaly, as black musicians often face multiple hardships on the road to success. Universal themes of struggle, discrimination, loss, redemption and defiance would make incredible biopics worthy of the big screen. Here are a few artists who are perfect for cinematic treatment.
1. Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
Jackson's 1982 mega-successful album Thriller is still the best-selling album of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Rolling Stone put the King of Pop at No. 35 on the list of the greatest music artists of all time, and his videos broke a "cultural apartheid" on MTV.
It's a classic story of the troubled artist. Jackson's four-decade career is full of raw material. From humble beginnings in Gary, Indiana, to his sudden death in 2009, he captivated people worldwide for part of his childhood and entire adult life.
Of course, Jackson didn't always captivate for the right reasons. For everything from his famous struggle with body image to his endless legal troubles, Jackson was a lightning rod for controversy. A filmmaker hoping to tackle his story would face a task of mammoth-sized proportions. A Jackson biopic would likely have to choose one specific era in his career (like The Jacksons: An American Dream did in 1992) rather than attempt to tell an all-encompassing story.
2. Janet Jackson (b. 1966)
The youngest child of the Jackson family, she is one of the best-selling pop artists of all time, having sold 160 million records. Her 1986 album, Control, came out in February 1986 and sold 5 million copies, and 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814 became the first album to have five top 10 hits. She ranks at the top of the list of artists with the most entries on the Billboard Hot 100. Some of today's biggest pop stars, including Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have named her as influences.
This is a story about Jackson taking control of her own life. She opens Control with the lines, "This is a story about control/ My control/ Control of what I say/ Control of what I do/ And this time I'm gonna do it my way." The album came out after she severed ties with her family professionally. Jackson's long career took a hit after the controversial Super Bowl XXXVIII incident in 2004, in which Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell admitted Jackson was unfairly burdened with all the blame, leaving Justin Timberlake almost blame-free.
3. Bob Marley (1945-1981)
Marley's is a story of unlikely success. He was shunned by his father early in life and left home in his teens to move to Kingston, Jamaica, and live in the culturally rich but troubled community of Trenchtown. Jamaican actor and musician Jimmy Cliff introduced Marley to Jamaica's music business. After an assassination attempt in 1976, Marley left Jamaica to live in London, where Exodus was recorded. He reached international fame but died in 1981 during his European world tour from a malignant melanoma that he refused to have amputated due to his religious beliefs.
Though a documentary of his life exists, several attempts at a biopic (with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Jonathan Demme to Jamie Foxx attached) have faltered. Recently, Marley's son Rohan said a movie would be "uncastable," since only one of his sons could play the role, BET reported.
4. Queen Latifah (b. 1970)
Whether in film, TV or through her music, Queen Latifah has entertained audiences for more than 25 years. She became the first female rapper to win the Grammy Award for best rap solo performance for "U.N.I.T.Y." in 1995. Her performance in Chicago as Matron "Mama" Morton earned her a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in 2002.
Queen Latifah's story is full of boundary-breaking. Her career has spanned multiple decades and multiple media. From her earliest forays into music, she was considered a feminist hip-hop pioneer.
Any authorized biopic of Latifah would probably also discuss her personal life, which she has indicated is, for the time being, off limits. Before her talk show's debut in 2013, she told The Hollywood Reporter "I don't feel the need to discuss my private life on this show or any other show."
5. Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)
No. 86 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest musical artists, Shakur's Greatest Hits and All Eyez on Me are two of the top 10 highest-selling rap albums of all time. In the book How to Rap, rapper Bishop Lamont said Shakur mastered "every element, every aspect" of his craft.
Tupac's life is also a murder mystery. Since his murder is still unsolved, the story has inherent tension and mystery. As of right now, the Hollywood Reporter reports, Shakur's biopic is stuck in development over music rights. John Singleton, who directed Shakur in the 1993 film Poetic Justice, was set to direct but has since left the project. Singleton said on Instagram that "the people involved aren't really respectful of the legacy of Tupac Amaru Shakur." He now plans a project of his own.
6. Missy Elliott (b. 1971)
Rags-to-riches tale: Missy Elliott's childhood in poverty and experience with sexual abuse took a turn when she appeared on the song "Brand Nu" with her group Sista, and wrote "That's What Little Girls Are Made Of" for Raven-Symoné. Since then, she's won multiple Grammys and four out of her six albums have been nominated for best rap album. She's known as much for her style — she wore an inflatable garbage bag in her first music video — as for her music. She's still the only female rapper to win a VMA for video of the year, which she received for 2002's "Work It." Elliott was also the first black woman to head a record label when she forced Elektra Records to give her control of her own sub-label, the Goldmind Inc.
Elliott has tried to give her life the biopic treatment since at least 2005, upon reportedly finishing a script. Friend and oft-collaborator Timbaland has reportedly not wanted any part in the biopic.
7. Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984)
If you love Elvis's "Hound Dog" or Janis Joplin's "Ball and Chain," then you might want to listen to Alabama vocalist Big Mama Thornton, whose powerful voice strongly influenced the nascent rock 'n' roll genre in the 1950s. Thornton did eventually make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and "Ball and Chain" was cited as one of 500 songs that shaped the genre.
Hers is a story of theft, exclusion and struggling for respect. Thornton was forced to leave school at a young age when her mother died and earned money by cleaning spitoons in a local bar. Her music career began at that bar when the billed singer did not show up for work one evening. Thornton became a star following an appearance at The Apollo Theatre with Johnny Otis, after which Otis produced her recording of "Hound Dog," written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, in 1952. Though the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, she saw none of the profits. In the early 1960s, she wrote and recorded "Ball and Chain" while signed to Baytone Records, which held the copyrights and saw the windfall when Janis Joplin's version became a hit. Thornton died at age 54 after years of alcohol abuse.
8. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (1971-2002)
Lisa Lopes was one-third of TLC, the second best-selling girl group of all time. Lopes added hip-hop cred to TLC's R&B sounds, co-writing many of their crossover hits. Lopes was often described as "larger-than-life" by Ebony and injected the group with personality throughout, often choosing the group's outfits and building set pieces for their stages. When a car accident in Honduras ended her life in April 2002, producer Jermaine Dupri told MTV, "She was determined to be something in life. ... She was a true rock star."
Why it would work: A story like Lopes' would showcase how she used music to escape reality from an early age: Her father abused alcohol, a trait Lopes later admitted she inherited. While her personality was great for stardom, it also got her into trouble. She tackled taboo topics like HIV in TLC's hit song "Waterfalls" and wore condoms as an accessory. She also set fire to the Atlanta mansion she shared with her boyfriend in 1994 after a fight.
The enthusiasm for Lopes' story remains palpable. Thousands attended her funeral, and a 2007 documentary chronicling the last days of her life aired on VH1. About 4.5 million people watched rapper 'Lil Mama play Lopes in a 2014 VH1 biopic, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story but no plans currently exist for a stand-alone Lopes biopic.
9. Prince (b. 1958)
Prince's career has defied expectations of gender and genre to the tune of 100 million records sold worldwide throughout his career. He is the winner of seven Grammys and an Academy Award for the score to film Purple Rain. Prince is also known for his multi-instumental abilities; he played nearly every instrument featured in the first five of his 34 albums, starting with his 1978 debut.
His is a story of defining yourself. Prince's theme during the 1980s was in direct defiance of Reagan-era conservatism. On the title track of his 1981 album Controversy Prince asked, "Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" That in-between attitude has been part of Prince's M.O., allure and mystery throughout his career. Though sexual and exuberant onstage his increased involvement with the Jehovah's Witnesses led the man who once wrote the lyrics, "I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess U could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby, masturbating with a magazine" to adapt a conservative streak.
10. Lauryn Hill (b. 1975)
Lauryn Hill's 1999 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was the first hip-hop album to win a Grammy for album of the year. Many artists, including Adele, Drake and Beyoncé have credited Hill as an influence. In 2015, the Library of Congress chose Miseducation for preservation in its National Recording Registry, which preserves recordings of "cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation's audio legacy."
Hill's story is about the prison of success. Hill has been mostly silent since the release of her 2002 Unplugged album. Hill has explained her years-long silence as a battle "for existential and economic freedom, which means the freedom to create and live without someone threatening, controlling, and/or manipulating the art and the artist, by tying the purse strings," Billboard reports. In 2013, Hill was sentenced to three months in federal prison for tax evasion on royalties earned between 2005 and 2007. She told the judge her music had earned her record company an estimated $600 million, "And I sit here before you trying to figure out how to pay a tax debt?" before comparing her experience to be similar to slavery.
11. Mary J. Blige (b. 1971)
Blige's story centers on overcoming drama to find peace. When Blige called for "no more drama" in the title of her 2001 album, she wasn't just throwing around words. Blige dropped out of high school and was discovered when her father sent to music executives a demo of her singing karaoke to Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture." Over the years, Blige has been open about her struggle recovering from molestation at age 5, as well as a history of alcohol abuse to self-medicate. As essential to the marriage between hip-hop and R&B, Blige's biopic would also be an insight into today's music landscape. Though Blige was at one time attached to a Nina Simone biopic, there have been no plans for a cinematic celebration of Blige herself.
12. Aretha Franklin (b. 1942)
Aretha Franklin's first album, 1956's Songs of Faith, was actually a gospel album recorded live in her father's church in Detroit, Michigan. The iconic singer has since won 18 Grammy awards and was the first woman inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Poet Nikki Giovanni called Franklin "the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America." The Michigan State Legislature deemed her voice a precious natural resource and an asteroid floating around in space bears her name.
Franklin's story is an all-American story about one girl's ascent to stardom. From singing gospel in her father's church to getting signed to Columbia Records as a "five-percent artist" (a record contract with high royalties) in 1960, Franklin was making $100,000 a year for her performances by the mid-1960s. At 19, Franklin married Ted White, who would become her manager — and was abusive throughout their marriage. The biopic would, of course, have an unparalleled soundtrack: "Respect" is one of the 500 songs that shaped rock music and Pitchfork called "Think" the 15th best song of the 1960s.
13. Aaliyah (1979-2001)
Aaliyah's story is one of talent cut short by tragedy. By her death at age 22 in a plane crash, Aaliyah had already amassed a career's worth of accolades. Her single "Try Again" was the first song in Billboard Hot 100 history to be No. 1 based on radio airplay alone. She also became the youngest person ever to perform at the Academy Awards when during the 1998 ceremony. Aaliyah was even a budding actress who appeared in 2000's Romeo Must Die and was slated to appear in the Matrix sequels. Her career was an influence on current superstars like Beyoncé, Adele and Drake.
Even her short career, which began at age 12, was full of controversy. There were rampant rumors of an illegal marriage between her and R. Kelly, who produced her first album, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. Neither artist addressed the rumors, but an Illinois marriage certificate surfaced falsely listing Aaliyah's age as 18. Her parents reportedly had the marriage annulled; she then split from Kelly personally and professionally. A 2014 Lifetime biopic of the singer was critically panned. Given the tragic nature of her story, though, she deserves a solid big-screen treatment.