Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Lives of Sam (Sam Cooke plays and biopics)

Have just finished The Life of Sam, a 2010 stage play by Robert L. Douglas. An easy and enjoyable read, it was written, we're told in the playwright's introduction, "as an effort to address the dearth of modern day media about the life of Sam Cooke and to elevate his name to its rightful place among America's greatest entertainers."

As that suggests, the tone is essentially celebratory, even though various illegitimate children and his treatment of his wife feature along the way. I'd say the piece is aimed at, or best suited to, a younger audience who know little about his background or the significance of his rise to fame. A narrator is on hand to do a lot of the heavy lifting at the start of each scene, which gives the  play an educational/docudrama feel, although it can certainly be commended as a painless way of acquiring an overview of Cooke's life and career without having to tackle either of the two major biographies.

If the above seems like faint praise, I admit that I am judging the piece cold, on the page, moreover in unedited form. Mr Douglas makes clear that the published text is as he first wrote it, uncut, and it may be that a production would have a different sort of effect. I am also unfamiliar with the tradition of gospel plays mentioned in this piece by Angela G. King about theatre in Detroit so I don't know how it would compare with other examples of that genre - or whether, indeed, it technically falls into that category. I can say, however, that the narrator is cleverly transformed into different characters during the play as occasion demands, so there is obvious stagecraft in evidence.

That said, I don't think The Life of Sam is the last word on Cooke. Whatever its merts as an introduction, in attempting to tick off so many key moments in the singer's development Mr Douglas leaves himself little time to build up or dwell on the significance of any one event.

And at least one instructive comparison is available. Strictly speaking, Kemp Powers' play One Night in Miami, recently seen in London (above), may not be a Sam Cooke biopic - he is merely one of three main characters emblematic of African American culture - but during the course of the play the need for a song such as A Change Is Gonna Come is very gradually teased out before it is finally mentioned and a snatch of it sung near the end. You may not get the finer details of Cooke's career in this piece, but you are left in absolutely no doubt about why that the writing of that song is such a big deal to Cooke personally and African Americans generally.

The above is based on reading the text, as ill health prevented me seeing it during its London run; I can only hope there will be another production sometime. Sadly, however, it may be that no one will get the chance to see The Life of Sam again. A later attempt to restage the play after its initial brief run was, according to the playwright, blocked by ABCKO on the grounds that the company intended to produce both a film and a play about Cooke.

Which brought to mind a 2013 blog post entitled Whatever Happened to the Sam Cook Biopic? You can read it, if so minded, here, but the gist of it is that writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais completed a screenplay for a Cooke biopic which initially met with enthusiasm from Allen Klein's daughter Jody but was nixed by a director who subsequently came on board.

I had a look online to see what further news there might be about this film, four years on from that post, and it seems that two Sam Cooke films are now imminent. Or rather imminent-ish, as the last news about them is not that recent. One is the ABCKO-authorised biopic, based on Peter Guralnick's biography Dream Boogie, written and directed by Carl Franklin - presumably he was the one who deemed the earlier screenplay inadequate.

The other, produced by Romeo Antonio and tentatively entitled Sam Cooke: The Truth, is described as "a murder mystery" centering around his death. The latter was initially announced as having the endorsement of L.C. Cooke, Sam's brother, but he subsequently denied this and ABCKO issued a statement stating that:
ABKCO Films is the only company authorized by Sam Cooke's widow and surviving siblings to produce a biopic of Sam Cooke's life.
It seems that a nephew of Cooke's is behind the "murder mystery" film; you can read more on the colorline website here.

But that article, the most recent I could find online at the time of writing, is almost a year old, and it's not clear when either film might actually come out. The only nugget of information I can volunteer personally is that I am acquainted with someone who was working with actors on an unspecified Sam Cooke project in 2013. And, annoyingly, he's told me that he doesn't remember any of the details - although that sort of seems fitting, as though Cooke will forever be elusive, an ethereal presence conjured up by records ...

At least, it would have been fitting if it didn't occur to me when revising this piece that he may well have been working on a BBC Radio 2 programme about Cooke's death, mentioned here.

It's mentioned in an earlier blog post about Cooke linked to below, but let me draw attention once again to Neil McKay's excellent radio play A City Called Glory, directed by Andy Jordan for Radio 4's 1994 series All Shook Up. Mr McKay is in the news right now in the UK as the writer and executive producer of Moorside, a two part drama about the disappearance of Shannon Matthews, recently shown on ITV. As with several of his other TV dramas, he makes the decision to show us events not through the eyes of the most newsworthy character - in this case the girl's mother, revealed to have been complicit in her abduction - but someone on the sidelines, a friend able to offer a unique and not unsympathetic perspective.

In a not dissimilar way, the person telling the story of Sam Cooke in A City Called Glory is Julius "June" Cheeks (above) of the Sensational Nightingales, who was also briefly in the Soul Stirrers. At the start of the play he is an Ancient Mariner figure in a bar, wanting to find someone to tell his story to, still trying to get his head around what happened to Cooke.Cheeks never had any wish to cross over to the secular side - he became a preacher, in fact - and McKay uses him as a touchstone for the young Sam as he starts to waver between gospel and secular success.

The playwright's masterstroke is to split Cheeks into two personae as the play approaches its climax: a voice in Cooke's own head as well as the real man desperate to tell his tale to anyone who'll listen, to give his subjective but privileged take on what may have happened on that fateful night. It's a superb moment, although one which seems so inextricably linked to the medium of radio that I can't imagine how a stage or film adaptation might work.

I don't know how much documentary evidence there actually is of a close friendship between the two men, not that that really matters for the purposes of the play. It's undoubtedly the case that he was present during the future star's formative years; there are several recordings on which they both feature. Cheeks was known for screaming himself hoarse in performances, so it's a neat idea that the person trying to understand what drove Cooke is his polar opposite both as a singer and as a person.

And however much license Mr McKay may or may not have allowed himself in the writing (Cheeks had been dead for several years by the time of the first broadcast) Cheeks is an inspired choice of choric figure: a character who is and is not of Cooke's world. He doesn't pretend to know everything; he is aware of the "secret Sam" who, over the years, becomes ever more reluctant to share some of his experiences on the increasingly rare occasions when they meet up. There are no murder mystery type revelations at the end of Neil McKay's play, but  if you ever get the chance to hear it, you won't come away feeling cheated.

Here is the most famous recording on which Sam Cooke and June Cheeks both feature:

Other blog posts about Sam Cooke:

The elusive man and his accessible music

Includes a review of Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie and the Complete Specialty Recordings box set.

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic? 

More about that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais screenplay

Stand By Me

Includes a section about A Change Is Gonna Come.

Waxing/waning crescent moon

Discussion of the Specialty gospel sides with audio clips.

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