As a childhood fan of The Monkees, I can vouch for the fact that TV series about the music business are nothing new. But there’s no question that the current success of Fox US’s hip-hop drama Empire has inspired an unprecedented array of music-related scripted shows. So this week’s column takes a look at the writers who are riding the crest of this compositional wave.
Star: After the success of Empire, the show’s co-creator Lee Daniels is planning another music-based scripted show. Working alongside Tom Donaghy, he is making Star, a series about three girls who form a band and their rise to the top. Like Empire, Star is for Fox, at which Daniels has an overall deal. Daniels is good at doing diversity. His band will comprise one white girl, one black girl and one mixed-race girl (half white/half black). There is also a transgender black/Latino central character called Cotton. Donaghy, meanwhile, is a playwright who is also known for having worked on The Mentalist and for creating ABC’s The Whole Truth.
Vinyl has just started airing on HBO (February 14) to pretty good reviews. Based on an idea by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, it tells the story of Richie Finestra, a record executive in the 1970s, played by Bobby Cannavale. The story credit goes to Jagger, Scorsese, Rich Cohen and Terence Winter, who also wrote the screenplay with George Mastras. As you’d expect with a project of this calibre, the writers are TV royalty. Winter, for example, was creator, writer, and executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, having previously worked on The Sopranos and written The Wolf of Wall Street. Mastras worked on all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad and is also the author of a novel, Fidali’s Way. There are already reports that Winter wants to do a second season.
The Breaks has just been greenlit as a series by Viacom pay TV channel VH1, having debuted strongly as a TV movie in January. Based on the Dan Charnas book The Big Payback, it’s a history of the hip-hop business. The series story is being developed by Charnas and Seith Mann, with the latter writing, directing and executive producing. Mann’s credits include The Wire, The Walking Dead and Homeland. The story follows three young friends seeking to establish themselves as hip-hop artists in New York City in 1990.
Vital Signs is the new series Apple is reported to be making with rap legend and Beats Music co-founder Andre Young, better known as Dr Dre. The show will be a semi-autobiographical “dark drama.” Apple and Dr Dre have not yet commented on the nascent project, which means it is too early to know who will write it. One option might be Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the Oscar-nominated duo who wrote the screenplay for NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton – though both are embroiled in other projects. Berloff, for example, is writing Sleepless Night, a movie starring Jamie Foxx, whike Herman has been working on the Scarlett Johansson movie Ghost in the Shell.
Roadies is a comedy from Showtime that, as its name suggests, goes backstage with a group of roadies. Directed by Cameron Crowe, the show will give an insider’s look at “the reckless, romantic, funny and often poignant lives of a committed group of roadies who live for music and the de facto family they’ve formed along the way. The music-infused ensemble comedy series chronicles the rock world through the eyes of music’s unsung heroes.” Crowe is a writer/director, mainly known for films such as Jerry Maguire and We Bought a Zoo. Less well known is the fact that he’s a huge music aficionado. After leaving college, Crowe worked for Rolling Stone, where he interviewed the likes of Dylan, Bowie and Clapton. His second film, Almost Famous, was about a teen music journalist who goes on the road with a band in the early 1970s.
New Edition project: Viacom-owned BET is making a miniseries based on the 1980s R&B heartthrobs New Edition – marking the network’s first scripted music-focused TV movie. A three-parter, the show has the backing of five of the band’s members, but not the most famous of the group, Bobby Brown. The film will chronicle New Edition’s beginnings in Boston’s Orchard Park Projects to success with tracks like Candy Girl and Cool It Now. The script is being written by Abdul Williams, who previously wrote the movie Lottery Ticket (which included Ice Cube in the cast).
Nashville deserves a mention, even though it predates Empire by a few years. Now up to its fourth season, the show centres on the rivalry between country queen Rayna James and rising star Juliette Barnes. The show was created by Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award in 1992 for the Thelma & Louise screenplay. Until Nashville, she mostly worked in movies, writing films such as Something to Talk About, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Mad Money. For season four, Khouri stepped back from writing but has directed some episodes. Writing was shared among a team of 10 writers, with the opening episode penned by Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin. The final episode, which will air this spring, is set to be written by Taylor Hamra, who was also involved in the recent TNT reboot of oil-industry soap Dallas.
The Get Down, which we discussed in a recent column, is a Baz Luhrmann music-driven drama that focuses on 1970s New York City: “broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped – dying.” It’s for Netflix, which says the six-part series is “a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to hip hop, punk and disco – told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed the city, and the world… forever.” This is similar terrain to Vinyl, so it will be interesting to see how it pans out in comparison. Luhrmann’s creative team includes Oscar-winning designer Catherine Martin, hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George and writer Stephen Adly Guirgis. To date, Guirgis is best known as a playwright, having won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama for Between Riverside and Crazy. However, he does have a few screenwriting credits to his name, including an episode of NYPD Blue from 2002 and a couple of short-lived dramas called Big Apple (CBS) and UC: Undercover (NBC). He is also an actor, appearing in movies such as Birdman.
Stop! In the Name of Love is a four-part miniseries for the BBC that will incorporate numerous Motown songs (a la Mamma Mia). The UK drama follows six smart thirtysomething women as they deal with love, friendship, success and failure. The show is a joint venture between Tony Jordan (Dickensian, Life on Mars), Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral), Antenna Group MD and former president of NBCUniversal International Peter Smith, and music consultant and former chairman of Universal Music UK John Kennedy. Jordan, who is writing the series, says it will “offer something completely different from any other show on television. The music of Motown is iconic and mirrors the rich gamut of human emotion and experience as well as exploring universal themes that all cultures and ages can relate to. The musical arrangements and cutting-edge choreography will give us a uniquely modern take on a timeless genre of music.”
Mozart in the Jungle is another show we’ve looked at recently following its Golden Globe triumph (Best Series – Music or Comedy). A quirky story of professional musicians working the New York concert circuit, Mozart is based on the memoir of an oboist called Blair Tindall. It was brought to the screen by a company called Picrow, with the pilot episode written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers. Once the show was commissioned as a 10-part series, a further eight people were credited with either writing scripts or providing stories. The most prominent names among these were John Strauss and Paul Weitz, the latter also directing a number of first season episodes. Season two, which was released on December 30 last year, involved some of the same writers but there were also five new additions – giving the show an ensemble feel both on and off the screen. Since we last wrote about the show, it has been give a third season.
Power isn’t quite a music series but it has strong music connections. Created and written by Courtney Kemp Agboh, the series follows James St. Patrick, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost is the owner of a popular New York nightclub – but also a major player in an illegal drug network. The show, which is produced by rapper Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson has aired for two series on Starz and was recently renewed by the network for a third.
tagged in: Alex Timbers, Baz Luhrmann, Callie Khouri, Cameron Crowe, Courtney Kemp Agboh, Dan Charnas, Dr Dre, Jason Schwartzman, Lee Daniels, Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Mozart in the Jungle, Nashville, Power, Roadies, Roman Coppola, Seith Mann, Star, Stop! In the Name of Love, The Breaks, The Get Down, Tony Jordan, Vinyl, Vital Signs