Months ago, it looked like 2005 would mark the 35th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s death in a big way. Even before news came that a reality TV show will search for a modern Joplin to tour with the singer’s former bands, two biopics appeared finally ready to emerge from development hell: one starring Renée Zellweger; the other, Pink.
But neither film has — at least not yet. While representatives from both productions say they’re optimistic that cameras will roll later this year, they’ve learned not to hold their breath.
“I dare not feel close,” said director Penelope Spheeris (“Wayne’s World,” “We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n Roll”), who tapped Pink for her film, which is tentatively titled “The Gospel According to Janis.” Yet the filmmaker said key factors like funding and scheduling are finally falling into place, and if all continues to go well, she’s hopeful the production will begin shooting in Louisiana in October.
But that plan may depend on whether she still has a star. A spokesperson for Pink at Jive Records would not confirm whether the singer still plans to play Joplin, saying that, for now, she is concentrating on a new album. But Spheeris, whose credits also include the two “Decline of Western Civilization” documentaries on punk and metal, is keeping the faith. “We’re hoping that Pink is going to be doing the movie,” she said. “For me, nobody else can play Janis Joplin. So if Pink’s not attached, then maybe I’m not attached” (See “Is Pink The Reincarnation Of Janis Joplin? Penelope Spheeris Thinks So” ).
Lakeshore Entertainment, which is producing the other film, is waiting on a final script from writer Anne Meredith before it can move ahead with its film, which will be titled either “Piece of My Heart” or simply “Janis.” No director or other actors have been announced, and filming would depend on newlywed Zellweger’s schedule, a spokesperson for the company said — that is, if the Oscar-winning actress is still on board. Zellweger’s publicist would not confirm at press time if the actress still plans to take on the role.
Meanwhile, the Joplin estate is looking at options of its own. “We are currently talking to several people about different approaches to the film,” Laura Joplin, who oversees her sister’s estate, said in an e-mail. “We are excited by the quality of the people involved and believe a really great movie could emerge.”
Although Laura Joplin said the estate is not attached to any project, it previously gave its blessing to the Spheeris film and, before that, authorized a biopic to be directed by Nancy Savoca that would star Lili Taylor; that project never got off the ground.
Since Joplin’s death from a heroin overdose at age 27, there have been countless attempts to make a movie about her tumultuous life (see “Another Janis Joplin Biopic In The Works” ). The multiple efforts to bring her story to the screen share one obvious problem: each other. Investors want to be sure they’re not funding the second Joplin film to hit theaters, fearing that moviegoers will already have had their fill.
Spheeris, who says she doesn’t lose sleep over the Lakeshore project, has been trying to develop her biopic since the late ’80s. About three years ago, she merged efforts with producer Peter Newman (“Smoke,” “The Squid and the Whale”), who previously had been working on the Savoca/ Taylor film. “I think Penelope was put on this earth to direct this movie,” Newman said. The producer added that now is a better time than ever for “The Gospel According to Janis” to finally move forward, pointing at a renewed interest in biopics about musical legends as a result of last year’s hit film “Ray,” about the late Ray Charles.
Beyond the competition, more basic elements of filmmaking have posed stumbling blocks for the films. Casting, of course, has been one of the biggest issues. At different times, Melissa Etheridge and Brittany Murphy were slated to star in the Lakeshore project, but the plans fell through. Zellweger’s involvement has drawn criticism from some who say the 36-year-old actress is too old to play Joplin.
“Janis was unique, picturesque, colorful, very bright and an original,” said guitarist Sam Andrew, who was Joplin’s bandmate in Big Brother & the Holding Company. “She was one of the funniest people I have known. Just to find someone who could do justice to her unusual personality and character would be a challenge — this is not even to mention her singing.”
However, the guitarist said he believes Zellweger has the talent, quirkiness and “wattage” to pull the role off, while Pink has “the most important ingredient, sincerity.”
In addition to casting issues, Lakeshore has had problems settling on a script. Last year, Zellweger was quoted saying she was holding off on pursuing the role until she is presented with a script that does Joplin’s story justice. According to Andrew, an early version of the script was “all Hollywood sex and power games. We didn’t know anything about all that in the San Francisco of 1966. The whole scene was much more innocent and non-career driven.” The Lakeshore rep said that many scripts have been considered, and that current writer Meredith’s is based on her own pitch.
While fans wait to see what happens with the films, one Joplin project that appears to be on track is the “Search for the Pearl” reality show. Announced by the Joplin estate earlier this year, the project will include a talent search for a singer to tour with Joplin’s former bands, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie Band. Further details are expected to be announced soon, but organizers say they’ve received more than 2,000 inquiries from women hoping to audition, even though no formal casting call has been issued.
“Auditions are a very tricky process,” Andrew said.
“It is important for people to understand that they can be very talented and still be wrong for a certain part. I have heard many tapes and CDs, and some of these women are just so good, so original, so free and beautiful. They are not right for the Janis role, but they are definitely right for their own role.”
Joplin was honored with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards in February.