Culture

Casting Call: Seeking Mr. Soul for Sam Cooke Biopic

Sam Cooke/Image via LOC.gov

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.