When Ray Star Jamie Foxx accepted the Best Actor prize at this year’s Oscars, he thanked Ray Charles “for living.” Now, in the wake of Ray‘s awards triumphs and $76 million gross, Hollywood is turning its attention to the equally tumultuous lives of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, all of whom serve as the subjects of upcoming films.
“Every single production entity turned Ray down – they said these movies don’t work,” says the film’s producer and director, Taylor Hackford. “Ray‘s success should open doors.” Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris, who has been trying to push a Joplin movie onto the screen for fifteen years, says that Ray brought in new investors: “They’re seeing dollars in the bank.”
The biggest of the many post-Ray films is Walk the Line, due out November 18th, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the late Johnny Cash. The film captures Cash’s early years in Memphis Sun Studios and his late love affair with wife-to-be June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). “I didn’t want to take a whole life and squeeze it into two hours,” says director and co-screenwriter James Mangold. “I thought the thing to explore was using John as a window into the birth of rock & roll, and into one of the great true-life romances of the last century.”
While Foxx lip-synced to vocals performed by Charles, Phoenix does his own singing in the film – and learned to play guitar from scratch. Witherspoon and the rest of the cast – including the relative unknowns who play Cash’s buddies Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis – did the same. To prepare the actors, music director T Bone Burnett led them through a three-month singing-and-playing boot camp.
Filmmaker Todd Haynes, who’s directing the Dylan-themed I’m Not There, solved his casting conundrum by splitting Dylan into seven different characters, played by multiple actors – among them a woman and an African-American boy. “It kind of explodes the idea that anybody could be depicted in a single self,” Haynes says of the experimental film, due by early next year.
Also set for ’06 is Spheeris’ The Gospel According to Janis, with singer Pink cast in the lead role (another Joplin movie, starring Renée Zellweger, is apparently mired in development). But Pink’s plans to tour and record a new album this year could keep her out of the film. “When people see Pink doing Janis in our screen test, inevitably the reaction is ‘Oh, I just got chills,’ ” says Spheeris. “I just pray that this works out with her.”
This story is from the March 24, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.