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Forest Whitaker And ‘Goodfellas’ Author Nicholas Pileggi Collaborating On Louis Armstrong Biopic

Written by on December 12, 2011 

He’s got a Best Actor Oscar for playing Idi Amin, he directed Waiting To Exhale, (which arguably is a major reason Tyler Perry has a career at all), and now The Playlist brings us a report on the great Forest Whitaker‘s Louis Armstrong biopic project, which he’ll be working on with Nicholas Pileggi, the writer whose books were the basis for the great mob epics GoodFellas and Casino.

Whitaker’s got a lot of other projects lined up: he’ll direct the belated, on-back-burner  sequel to Waiting To Exhale, based on author Terry McMillan‘s follow-up to that novel called Getting To Happy; he’ll direct and act in a personal project, Better Angels… and here is Whitaker on that film:

“I’m gonna direct a movie next year called ‘Better Angels,’ which deals with child soldiers in the north of Uganda, and a conflict journalist who enters into this camp. We should be going into pre-production on that in April.” What’s more, he’ll be taking the lead role as well, telling us, “This’ll be the first time I act and direct, the things I’ve directed, I’ve never even done a cameo.”

Still, it’s the long-in-development Louis Armstrong project – once titled Satchmo, Armstrong’s nickname –  that will likely have the highest profile, (because as Jenna Maroney pointed out on 30 Rock, the Oscars love dead singers). If not for Armstrong, modern music in general – and specifically jazz – would be very, very different. As trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie once said of Satch: “No him, no me.” (And in case you’re not a jazz nerd, Gillespie and co-hort Charlie “Yardbird” Parker mentored Miles Davis. So do the math there.)

An early draft of the project by Rain Man scribe Ron Bass was a little too “mythic,” and Whitaker is currently working with Pileggi to bring the man’s life into realistic focus:

“We’re trying to narrow it down, the first draft was told mythically, more like a fairy tale. All the facts were there, but sometime 5-year-old Louis would break out in song as the old Louis, as he walked through the streets. It’s not your realistic biopic.”

Whitaker also confirmed that he’ll be starring as the legendary Armstrong, but he won’t be pulling a Jamie Foxx:  “I”m not going to sing,” he says. “I’m just going to use his voice. It’s too iconic.”

Armstrong had his problems – with depression and notably with his weight, and he was known to try to control his binge eating with various “diet remedies” which were essentially early 20th-century forms of speed. Still, Whitaker insists the man loved life, and his story is essentially a positive one.

While these musician biopics tend to follow each other in banal, formulaic plot patterns (see Ray and Walk The Line), the fact that Pileggi is on the project gives me hope – as does the the news that Whitaker asked for script notes from Clint Eastwood. Why? Eastwood directed Whitaker’s brilliant performance as Charlie Parker himself in 1988’s Bird – one of the greatest and most overlooked film in either artist’s canon.

I know most of the world doesn’t give much of a fuck about jazz anymore, but Louis Armstrong’s legacy and career kicked down a lot of racial barriers for entertainers in this country – but by no means all of them. Look for the film sometime in 2013.

In the meantime, Whitaker will be seen in a supporting role opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the latter’s action comeback vehicle The Last Stand in early 2013. So get excited for that. Or don’t.

What do you think of Forest Whitaker as Louis Armstrong?

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