No matter what, celebrity biopics inevitably stir up issues as they try to bring someone’s life to the screen. No one is more aware of that than the producers of “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B,” the Lifetime movie airing Saturday night about the superstar singer who died in a plane crash when she was 22.
Trouble started brewing this summer when Aaliyah’s family told TMZ and the New York Daily News that they didn’t think Lifetime was the right venue for Aaliyah’s life story — and declined to hand over the music rights. Then, Zendaya Coleman, originally cast to play the star, dropped out of the movie, putting production on hold.
Eventually things got back on track: The network cast Alexandra Shipp in the leading role, and scheduled Nov. 15 premiere date. But the movie, which chronicles Aaliyah’s rise to fame as a teen, also struck a negative chord with fans when they revealed it would include some salacious details, including her reported marriage to R. Kelly at age 15.
Damage control time! Filmmakers got on the phone with reporters recently to try to calm fears about the film.
Executive producers Howard Braunstein and Debra Martin Chase, along with author Christopher Farley (whose book “Aaliyah: More Than a Woman” was the basis for the movie) explained that they aimed to create a very tasteful tribute to a star who “led an incredible life in 22 short years.”
Cue the avalanche of questions about Aaliyah’s family’s disapproval and the fact that they don’t have rights to the music.
To clarify: While the movie couldn’t use original Aaliyah recordings, they were able to obtain publishing rights, so Shipp recorded covers of the songs. Producers promised that roadblock didn’t impact moving forward with the movie.
“We’re trying to honor this woman and tell this story of this journey and her overcoming obstacles,” Farley said. “We felt we had enough of the music to still make a terrific film, and we’re excited to tell the story we were telling.”
The R. Kelly element has also caused a stir, as one reporter on the call wondered if it will draw heat given that her family never officially confirmed the nuptials — even though journalists found marriage records (on which Aaliyah lied about her age). Lifetime has already released a clip of a scene in which the movie version of Aaliyah tells her parents she and R. Kelly are married. It doesn’t go well.
The trio argued that R. Kelly, as controversial as he may be, was part of Aaliyah’s life, and an important influence on her music. Farley, who has done extensive research into her life, reiterated that the marriage is a matter of public record, not fictional drama.
“The evidence is there that they were married,” Chase added. “We tried to keep it very tasteful and respectful in our portrayal.”
Braunstein shot down the family’s claims that Lifetime never reached out to them about the movie.
“We absolutely reached out to them, and Lifetime did too,” he said. “They chose not to cooperate with it.” He said that he has no concerns about threats to block to the movie from airing. “Hopefully they’ll enjoy it,” he said. “I hope they’ll be proud.”
Were they rattled by all the Twitter-furor over casting and other controversies? Producers admitted that the fury “was hard to ignore, but you can’t dwell on it,” noting that these fans didn’t really know what was going on with production.
“Biopics are hard,” Chase admitted. “People have an opinion and social media allows them to voice that opinion. But at the end of the day, our goal was to make the best movie possible.”