Hollywood has been trying, fruitlessly, to make a movie about Janis Joplin almost since she let loose that rendition of “Ball and Chain” at Monterey nearly a half-century ago. But Ron Terry, a music-producer-turned-screenwriter who knew and worked with the renegade musician, may have finally cracked the code.
Terry has been developing a Joplin film for 15 years with a carousel of big-name actors and directors. Last week, news broke that he and Jean-Marc Vallée, the director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and the upcoming “Wild,” would team up. Amy Adams has long been attached to star in the title role, and separate financier and distributor deals (think well-established on each) are expected to be completed shortly. The duo of “Dallas Buyer” writers -- Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack -- could also come aboard to work on Terry’s draft with Vallée.
All of which means the movie could be in production as soon as next fall -- 45 years after Joplin died of an overdose at age 27, and seemingly as many years since showbiz duffers have tried to tell her story.
“This finally feels right,” Terry said in an interview, noting that he’s walked away from large sums of money from studios because he felt they misunderstood Joplin’s legacy. “I’m hoping this it.”
Terry has reason to add caution to his optimism. His involvement with a Joplin film began when Paramount approached him shortly after he wrote and produced a TV movie about Jimi Hendrix, with whom he was close, in 2000. That Joplin iteration didn’t come off, but it set Terry — who helped mount many of her concerts -- to thinking he could make a go at a movie himself, with an assist from some other partners.
As it turned out, there would be many. Fox Searchlight and Lakeshore Entertainment were among the Hollywood entities involved at various points. So was a diverse group of actresses — Brittany Murphy before she died, and Renée Zellweger, with whom CAA packaged the film at one point.
A number of directors, meanwhile, tried their hand at it too, including Fernando Meirelles and Lee Daniels, the latter looking likely until he got caught up in “Butler” production and promotion and he and Terry couldn’t see eye to eye on the script anyway.
But Terry believes Vallée is the right man. The director has a knack for getting difficult projects made -- he unraveled the 20-year knot that was "Dallas Buyers Club" and extracts gripping performances from actors playing real-life figures, as he did there and on "Wild."
Most important, he has an affinity for music — deejaying in his native Montreal and curating his soundtracks carefully, often with a kind of arty classic rock.
“He’s the first one of all the directors I talked to who took it from the music side first,” Terry said of the director. “Everyone else took it from her life and where can we find the emotional chord, which is great, but we’re not even here talking about Janis if not for the music, so it has to start there.”
Terry said he hasn't conceived of the movie as a cradle-to-grave story but rather, in the manner of “Selma” and Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming Steve Jobs biopic, a tale that focuses on key moments of Joplin’s life, particularly during the Big Brother and the Holding Company period and the Monterey show that anchored it. The film will center on the “interplay of being in a band and the tug of wars” around it. The promoter and manager Chet Helms will be a key part of the story and a juicy role, he said.
Terry also hopes to “re-train” Adams’ voice, putting her through what he describes as a painful process of vocal rehearsals in the spring and early summer so that it reaches the lower register the role requires. She is down for it, he said.
All the musical elements aside, Terry does feel there is an emotional core to the story as well, particularly given Joplin's relationships with members of Big Brother and assorted lovers, which Terry said were sometimes misinterpreted. “She found it very difficult to be alone,” he said. “A lot of the men and women she slept with were just to have someone to hang out with; she wasn’t in love with these people.”
There are particular pitfalls with Joplin, whose spectacular musical rise and concomitant drug abuse lends itself to the VH1-ish tropes of the genre that most filmmakers want to avoid. Other Joplin projects -- notably one from “The Squid and the Whale” producer Peter Newman -- have tried unsuccessfully to get off the ground. Given both the larger-than-life quality to the story and complicated musical and other rights, Joplin's story is a hard one to tell.
In fact, the difficulties of making a Joplin film has become the stuff of inside-the-Beltway legend. A "30 Rock" story line a few years back even lampooned the whole notion, as rights issues forced the TGS gang to mount a version about “Janet Jopler.”
But many of the roadblocks have been removed here, Terry said. Music rights are not an issue, he noted; development money poured in by various partners over the years has led to him securing nearly 10 songs. And given Terry's interactions with Joplin, life rights for the musician are unnecessary, though the producer says he will invite her heirs to join the process.
The music biopic is a genre that Hollywood continues to find fascinating. Many actors love music, and tragic rock stars lend themselves to screen drama, despite the fact -- as several examples seem to show each year -- they can seem like better ideas in theory than on the screen. (And that's presuming they get made. Numerous projects, like the Tupac Shakur biopic, have been caught up in family politics.) It can takes a fresh and forward-thinking writer to make something compelling.
The new Joplin film be called "Get It While You Can,” after her posthumous minor hit single in 1971. Terry has resisted studio-suggested ideas to call the film “Piece of My Heart” after the better-known number because he feels the title doesn’t represent Joplin musically or thematically.
“ 'Get it while you can' was her theory,” he said. “She wasn’t thinking about longevity. She was thinking about now, and the music.” Fans can only hope that others are too.