Pioneering producer and talent scout John Hammond, whose career stretches from discovering Count Basie in the 1930s to signing Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s, is the subject of a new biopic in development. “This is the story of a kid who decides to change America on his own,” says Wall Street screenwriter Stanley Weiser, who’s penning the project, “and to do that he wants to integrate the music industry.”
Weiser’s script, an adaptation of Dunstan Prial’s 2006 biography The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, focuses primarily on Hammond’s early days as a skinny, bespectacled, trust-funded son of a Vanderbilt, who ditched his violin lessons to catch jazz shows in Harlem.
As a talent scout for Columbia Records, Hammond signed Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, and discovered a 17-year old songbird named Billie Holiday — all before his 30th birthday. Hammond was a vital force for progress in the segregated world of jazz, nudging a stubborn Bennie Goodman to finally take a chance and record with black musicians.
“There are so many characters,” says Weiser, who worries that Hammond’s career was too prolific for one film and has therefore opted to focus on just one period of Hammond’s life. “If I did a cavalcade of everyone [Hammond] represented, it would be amorphous and shapeless. It becomes a typical episodic biopic.” Weiser does, however, plan to include Hammond’s discoveries of Springsteen and Bob Dylan in the film.
Nashville and Ocean’s 11 producer Jerry Weintraub, who knew Hammond personally, has been attached to the project for several years. Weiser says his research will continue as he writes, though he’s been troubled by one obstacle: “Unfortunately,” he laments, “a lot of the people who were contemporaries of Hammond are dead.”