How to make a Michael Jackson biopic work: 5 ideas

Giving the King of Pop's outlandish life the Hollywood treatment won't be easy. Here, critics offer advice on how to pull it off

Michael Jackson in New York City, January, 1988
(Image credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd./Corbis)

Just over a week after Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson's death, Variety reports that the singer's estate is shopping around a biopic about the late King of Pop. The project is in the very early stages, with no script, director, or star attached. Inevitably, though, cramming the controversial star's roller coaster of a life into a two-hour film will be a challenge. Here, five suggestions on how to make a Jackson biopic rock:

1. Avoid a straightforward approach

Just as Jackson defied convention, his biopic should flout tradition. How about a roundabout approach, says Sean O'Connell at Cinema Blend, like that adopted by Todd Haynes for I'm Not There, his take on Bob Dylan's life. The 2007 film utilized six actors, including Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, to embody different aspects of Dylan. That would resolve another dilemma, says Jen Yamato at Movieline: Who to cast as Jackson. This way, a host of talented actors would be able to portray Jackson "at various stages of his life."

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2. Don't censor Jackson's history

The Jackson estate is hinting that the biopic would stop short of covering all the star's ups and downs, says Drew Taylor at Indie Wire. But a "squeaky clean narrative" would be a grave mistake. "Damaging allegations of child abuse, closeted homosexuality, reckless spending, and mental instability" are some of the most intriguing aspects of Jackson's life. Sadly, "the most fascinating material," says Kyle Anderson at Entertainment Weekly, is also the "least likely to be depicted on screen."

3. Focus on just one aspect of his life

It would be foolish to attempt to bring Jackson's entire life story to the big screen, says Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects. How about several movies that explore "the saga in bite-sized chunks," suggests Taylor. A film solely about the construction of Thriller, for instance, would be extremely entertaining, says Anderson.

4. Don't make it a movie musical

Since no Jackson biopic can move forward without rights to the King of Pop's songs, the filmmakers may be tempted to make this an over-the-top movie musical, says Russ Fischer at Slash Film. It would be much wiser to adopt the Walk the Line model and feature Jackson's music organically through scenes in which the King of Pop performs, rehearses, and records.

5. Cast the right actor

Bookmaker Paddy Power has come up with a laughably varied slate of frontrunners to play Jackson, says S.T. Vanairsdale at Movieline. Johnny Depp and Zac Efron lead a list of contenders which also includes, rather bafflingly, Will Smith and his son Jaden, Justin Bieber, Kevin Bacon, Keanu Reeves, and Crispin Glover. The "only reasonable choice would be to find a newcomer to slip into MJ's bedazzled gloves," says Anderson. It'll be too tough for an established actor to tackle the part "baggage-free." Of the name-actors being bandied about, only two can be taken seriously: Community's Donald Glover and Justin Timberlake. Which begs the question: Black or white?

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