Casting Call: Seeking Mr. Soul for Sam Cooke Biopic

Sam Cooke/Image via

We love films about music, but music biopics are our guilty pleasure. No matter how well-acted and beautifully shot they are, it's hard to deny the awkwardness of reshaping an entire messy life -- and, let's face it, musicians earn biopics by having a messy life -- into an artificially streamlined, over-earnest two-hour narrative. ("Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," a dead-on parody of this genre, underscores this in its opening scene: "Give him a minute, son. Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays.") But we can overcome this (mostly) if the film manages to capture, through its musical reenactments, how performance made these artists come alive for a moment of magic.

With the James Brown biopic "Get On Up" now in theaters, we look forward to seeing Chadwick Boseman (who portrayed baseball legend Jackie Robinson in last year's "42") step into the livewire shoes of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. But it makes us turn our casting dreams to another musical legend who also appears in the film: Sam Cooke.

While Cooke has appeared as a character in a few projects (a Little Richard movie, an episode of "The Playboy Club," and, most notably, the opening montage of "Ali," which cuts together shots of the boxer training with Cooke's blistering live set at the Harlem Square Club), no full-scale biopic has happened. Rumors of two potential productions have trickled in over the years, the first an adaptation of Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, and the second, announced only last year, from writer-director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress").

It's no surprise that Hollywood would want to attempt a biopic. After all, the broad outlines of Cooke's story provide the material films dream of: Talented poor boy rises to fame as a gospel performer, crosses over to become a secular soul legend, complicates his personal life with women and drugs, and then is shot to death, under mysterious circumstances, at age thirty-three. Guralnick's biography fills in the details of Cooke's talent as a songwriter, pioneering business efforts in a white-dominated industry, and legacy within the history of soul and the civil rights movement. And then there's the music, ranging from Cooke's gospel roots with the Soul Stirrers to his classic pop hits "You Send Me," "Chain Gang," "Bring It On Home to Me," and the civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come." While, as the cliché goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, Guralnick manages to evoke the angelic yet physical texture of Cooke's voice, the warm, lingering afterglow to the bright, explosive rocket of his life. A film, of course, allows the power of this voice to be not only heard but felt.

So who could play Mr. Soul? Handled correctly, this could be a great lead role for an actor with acting chops, magnetic presence, and good looks. Two decades ago, this part would have been tailor-made for Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress" star Denzel Washington, but he's too old now to play someone who died in his early thirties -- though who knows if that would stop Hollywood. Michael B. Jordan, who had his first lead in last year's acclaimed drama "Fruitvale Station" and will play the Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" reboot, would be a solid pick, but looks young for the part. Closer to the right age is Derek Luke, who broke out in 2002's "Antwone Fisher" and appeared in "Captain America"; in a terrific multi-episode arc in "The Americans," he played a former civil rights activist capable of charm and contradiction.

Ultimately, our only choice for Sam Cooke, ever since we first read Guralnick's book years ago, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Oscar-nominated star of "12 Years a Slave." A compelling but natural performer who shines in projects small and large, the English actor has the range to portray the complexities of someone whose classy public image was at odds with his troubled private life. Through his stage training, Ejiofor would have an innate understanding of the charisma -- and its cost -- someone like Cooke brought to not only live performing, but also to stardom. He's also a capable singer -- though very different from Cooke -- as demonstrated in "12 Years a Slave" and also "Kinky Boots," in which he plays a drag queen.

Regardless of our idea of Sam Cooke, we can't wait to see what Carl Franklin has in mind for his film. Discuss your thoughts on this or the genre of music biopics below, but, first, we'll give you a minute to think about your entire life before you post.

  • lolachi

    Chadwick Boseman was offered the role, but I think he turned it down since he wants to get out of being pigeonholed for biopics. For me, it's between Anthony Mackie and Chiwetel. However, I know Anthony is interested in creating a Jesse Owens biopic.

  • First let's get the record straight. Sam Cooke hated drugs and never used them. That's a known fact among anyone who knew him. My mother was his sister, making him my uncle. Women he adored and not just for sexual favors, but for the sheer beauty they possess. There was however, people who were around him used, but HE NEVER DID DRUGS.

    • Mel

      Thank you for setting the record straight about the drug abuse ( I never believe he used drugs). I'm such a huge fan of Mr. Cooke and I'm only 35 years old. I grew up listening to him and now my sons listen as well. I truly hope whomever they pick to portray Mr. Cooke is as genuine to his character as possible and that his story is factually accurate.

    • Wullie

      I am a firm believer that there should be a film made about Sam Cook's life and the the huge influence and contribution he brought to the music industry and the civil rights movement.

      Having bought and read our Uncle Sam by Erik Greene some years ago ~ The family should get a movie out there first, instead of one with some peoples fabricated versions of events and give the man the recognition and praise that he deserves.

      As Elvis was the King of Rock n Roll Sam was the undoubted King of Soul.

    • Eleazar Green


    • Hasan

      Thanks for clearing that up about the drugs. Ejiofor, or someone in his class would be fine. Cooke's own voice should be used for singing parts. no actor would do justice. (Or any other singer for that matter.) The voice of Sam Cooke is what made him special

  • SFCookeFan

    Anthony Mackie or Mariah Carey's husband

  • ande willes

    I always felt like Nick Cannon would make an excellent Sam Cooke.

  • Troy Smith, jr

    If anyone knows any information about the casting call's whereabouts, I would love to know. I would love to audition to play Sam Cooke.

  • I'm in my late 40's butintroduced to Sam Cooke's music early age. My father and my uncles played a lot of Sam Cooke I just fell in love with his voice his tone just everything that he could saying about was to be brutally honest I think this is a long time coming and I can't wait until this movie has been released and of course I'll pray on the DVD Blu ray and see it at the movies.Whomever you get to play the part of Sam Cooke he better bring it...lolI recently had the pleasure of listening to his brother LC Cooke's music;is very scary to hear how much alike they sound the only difference that I could hear with Sam's voice was just a little bit deeper LC sing just a little too proper,if that makes any sense...can't wait until the movie comes out, and the truth is finally known...

  • Broderick

    use blair underwood

  • Over 13 years ago, my Agent asked me to write a treatment for CUBA GOODING Jr. and FOREST WHITAKER ... I loved Sam's music so much since I was a kid and after reading as much as i could about him in the public domain ... newspaper articles on microfiche at the libraries, internet accounts from family and friends ... I went into a psychic trance and He came to me and dictated EXACTLY WHAT REALLY HAPPENED!!!
    I ended up writing a 91 page gem of a screenplay by channeling Sam and Copyrighted it in 2001 - Forest and His Partners have the project in consideration here:
    I invite anyone to read the screenplay ... as did my former agent ... with her by line!!! Hence, former Agent.

  • Brian White has the exact look and is a more than capable actor to play the man I feel is the greatest male singer ever. White played in 'Mr. 3000' with the late Bernie Mac. Look him up.

  • Jack

    I think Mike Epps would be able to play the role of Sam Cooke.

  • Syn

    Check out this young talent named Malcolm Mays, who co-starred with Cuba Gooding Jr., in "Life of a King!"

    He's definitely very talented, "good looking," sings, writes, produces his own music
    and independent films, and exudes Charisma!

    I bet you would be surprised at the close resemblance to Sam Cooke!

  • Ron zebeski

    Way too long and overdue !!! In my opinion, the greatest soulful and natural voice of all time . Ray Charles, James brown , were great movies and great artists, but Sam was the king .. I can't wait fir the movie ..and I'm a huge Elvis fan, but I think Sam needs to be in the same conversation as the all time best

  • po j

    Columbus Short should get consideration.

  • Luke James would be a SHOE IN for Sam Cooke. They have the same "boyish" charm to their beauty.

  • Eugene

    Leon Bridges would be a excellent Sam Cooke. Listen to his song river!! It sounds like a young Sam Cooke!!