Sunday, 24 March 2013

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic?

I was watching the interview on BBC 4 with writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais the other night. It's very enjoyable and worth watching all the way through, even if you know the basics (who in Britain doesn't?) but one detail leapt out.

Asked about film projects which hadn't worked out, without too much prompting they mentioned they had completed a Sam Cooke biopic. They finished the screenplay before a director had been chosen; when a director was in place and he said that he wanted his own input they assumed this would mean collaboration, but in the event not a single scene of theirs was left. Did this mean everything they had done was sh*t? La Frenais (I think) asked.

Anyway, I knew nothing about it, assumed that if you are reading this you might be interested too, found it was based on Peter Guralnick's book and is being produced by Jody Klein (daughter of Allen) of ABKCO.

There are several places online which give basic info about this (so why didn't I find out about it sooner?), but here is a piece which is slightly more detailed and cautious about the choice of Clement and La Frenais, citing inconsistency, and fearing that Klein's "rooted financial interest" may lead to a hagiography. Anyway, good or bad, now we'll never know unless their original script leaks out. What makes it odd is the extravagant praise heaped on their screenplay by Klein in Billboard:
"We had been looking for a long time for a writer to develop Peter's book," Klein told Billboard, "and it clicked when we met them. They understood the artist, they understood the times. It's one of those things, like when you meet the love of your life and you know you have met your (future) wife. They have written a fantastic script."
So who knows? I can't find the director's name online - lots of pieces about ABKCO being on the hunt for a director, but no names. Anybody know?

Watch the interview with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais here, if you can access BBC iplayer, until Wednesday 27th March. The Telegraph's Michael Deacon, reviewing the programme, wrote:
It was fascinating to hear them talk, not just because they’re fascinating writers, but because the format allowed them to be fascinating. Mark Lawson Talks to… is perhaps the least visually enticing format on TV: this was an hour spent watching three men sit still in a barely lit studio, and one of the men was Mark Lawson. But that’s what made it good: interesting talk without visual distraction. TV that aspires to be radio. 
And talking of radio, I cannot avoid mentioning Neil McKay's A City Called Glory, an excellent account of Cooke's life using the device of his friend and sometime Soul Stirrer June Cheeks, as an Ancient Mariner-type narrator and choric figure. Here's part of what I wrote in an earlier post (read it in full here):
Cheeks, who never deserted the gospel field - he became a preacher in tandem with his singing - is the touchstone for Cooke as he wavers between two worlds. First a friend and confidante to the young Sam, Cheeks is then split into two as the play approaches its climax: a voice in Cooke's own head as well as the real man desperate to tell his tale, give his subjective but privileged take on what may have happened on that fateful night Cooke was shot.
Although Cheeks was briefly in the Soul Stirrers, he is best known as the lead singer in the Sensational Nightingales, screaming himself hoarse in performances, so it's a neat idea that he is the polar opposite of Cooke in more ways than one. And although Cheeks had been dead for several years by the time of the first broadcast, so presumably it was less complicated to use him as a narrator figure, the choice of a character who is and is not of Cooke's world was inspired.

I have read the two biographies of Cooke (Daniel Wolff and Peter Guralnick) since first hearing this play; it really does still stand up. Both are good but the Guralnick one in particular brings out the sense of his contradictory, elusive nature as he pursues success: capable of immense warmth and charm yet taciturn and dissatisfied in private (Cooke's widow Barbara contributed to the Guralnick book). You emerge from the book not really knowing him fully, wondering whether it's possible to know him, but Neil McKay's play - and I don't know how much information was available to him at the time of writing - feels right: if it wasn't that way then it's still a convincing conclusion to draw from what is known about his life. 
The play has been repeated a few times on BBC Radio 4 Extra, so it may come round again. However good or bad the finished feature film, Neil McKay's play can be very highly recommended indeed. It was part of a series called All Shook Up, directed by Andy Jordan. The quality of the writing in the series was a little variable, but the two plays by McKay - the other, Take the Night, was about Roy Orbison - were great.

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