Film and TV

Actors Who Should Play Famous Musicians

This is the America we want: One where Donald Glover plays jazz legend Duke Ellington.
This is the America we want: One where Donald Glover plays jazz legend Duke Ellington. Kevin Todora
Every famous musician with a story worth telling (and even some who don’t) is bound to get the Hollywood treatment. Films based on the life of famous performers aren’t a new trend, but the past few years have seen a noticeable uptick in musician biopics, most notably Bohemian Rhapsody, which grossed almost $1 billion and won four Academy Awards.

In the last five years alone, we’ve seen films about Elton John (Rocketman), N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton), the Beach Boys (Love & Mercy), Judy Garland (Judy), Motley Crue (The Dirt), James Brown (Get On Up) and Hank Williams (I Saw The Light), just to name a few.

There’s also no shortage of upcoming projects either; in the last year or so, studios have announced plans to make films centered on Bob Dylan, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, the Bee Gees and Boy George among others. This past week saw the debut of the trailer for Stardust, the controversial film about David Bowie’s formative years. Clearly, audiences have an appetite for a glimpse into their favorite performers’ lives, even if condensed into a rousing two-hour film.

Here are some of our suggestions:

Donald Glover as Duke Ellington
Who better to take on the role of the jazz icon than one of the biggest names in today’s modern pop culture? Between acting, comedy, composing and performing, Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) is in the running for the most talented man alive, and we think he could easily slip into the role of the pioneering pianist Duke Ellington.

Emma Stone as Janis Joplin
Amy Adams nearly starred in a biopic of Janis Joplin called Get It While You Can, but, unfortunately, Adams may no longer be believable as the troubled singer who died at age 27. As a replacement, we’re suggesting Emma Stone; not only is Stone an accomplished vocal performer on stage and in films, but she’s proven to be an actress who can nail complicated character roles.

Dacre Montgomery as Billy Idol
Stranger Things star Dacre Montgomery has been slowly building his acting resume across film and television, all while performing on the side through his music video performances and podcast. The charismatic Australian actor has the perfect “rebel attitude” and dynamic body language that would make him an ideal choice to play the punk rock legend Billy Idol.

Evan Rachel Wood as Sinead O’Connor
Some biopics struggle to find the dramatic material in the lives of their subjects, but that certainly wouldn’t be an issue with this one. O’Connor’s life has no shortage of controversies to make for a compelling and timely film, and we think Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood could bring the dramatic heft needed for such a weighty subject.

Paul Rudd as “Weird Al” Yankovic
The internet is obsessed with the fact that Paul Rudd apparently doesn’t age, but then again, neither does “Weird Al” Yankovic, whose parody songs have been drawing laughs since the late 1970s. Someone as endearing and good-spirited as Yankovic deserves someone as endearing and good-spirited as Rudd to play him, and thankfully, no makeup or CGI will be required for flashback sequences.

Chiwetel Ejiofer as Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On recently topped Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest albums of all time, so expect Hollywood to quickly tap into Gaye’s more-relevant-than-ever legacy. The legend’s unparalleled influence and fraught personal life demand an A-list performer to embody him, so we’re suggesting Chiwetel Ejiofer, the Academy Award-nominated actor whose credits include 12 Years a Slave, Kinky Boots, Serenity, Talk to Me and Dirty Pretty Things.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Kate Bush
The surreal mysticism of Kate Bush’s work and influence could make for a really great, experimental biographical film that plays with conventions. A young actress with that sense of versatility is Anya Taylor-Joy, who has experience in dark comedies (Thoroughbreds), period pieces (Emma, The Queen’s Gambit), horror (Split, The Witch), and romance (Barry). She could tap into Bush’s ethereal qualities with ease.

Bruce Willis as Billy Joel
New York’s resident tough guy is renowned for his clever, often provocative lyrics, as well as his unparalleled skills as a performer and piano player. Bruce Willis could help embody Joel’s witty spirit of the everyman. While Willis’ recent career has been defined by box office bombs and direct-to-video releases, a starring role in an award-worthy biopic could give him a major comeback. And if we need a younger actor to play Joel in earlier scenes, consider Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who nailed his performance as the younger Willis in Looper.

Ben Mendelsohn as Mick Jagger
The career of the Rolling Stones has been the subject of countless documentaries, including Gimme Shelter from 1970, and we don’t envy whoever ends up playing the frontman who's been selling out stadiums for over 50 years. Ben Mendelsohn has proven to be a fearless performer who not only embodies Jagger’s distinctly odd spirit, but also bears a striking resemblance to him. For earlier scenes, of course, the natural casting choice would be Harry Styles, whose SNL impression of the rock god is simply flawless.

Tessa Thompson as Whitney Houston
Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten is reportedly working on a film about Whitney Houston titled I Wanna Dance With Somebody, raising the question of who could possibly fill the shoes of the most awarded female artist of all time. Tessa Thompson isn’t just one of the best actresses of her generation, but also an accomplished performer who contributed to the soundtrack of the Creed films where she also co-starred.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.