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Zendaya Out of 'Aaliyah' Movie: The Problem With Biopics

The Disney star pulled out of Lifetime's planned Aaliyah movie for creative reasons, highlighting the difficult process of making biopics.
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jun 30, 2014

Zendaya is no longer "that somebody" for Lifetime's controversial Aaliyah biopic. (Via Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group

"You know, there were certain things that were missing and things that weren't 100 percent taken care of. And I feel like, if I'm going to portray one of my idols, someone I feel so important and strongly about, it has to be done right." (Via CBS Television Distribution / "Entertainment Tonight"

It hasn't even been two weeks since Zendaya accepted the role of the "R&B princess," who died in a plane crash at the age of 22 back in 2001. (Via Warner Bros. Television Distribution / "The Rosie O'Donnell Show"

Lifetime's PR team tweeted out that the project was on hold for now, so it remains to be seen whether the network will dust itself off and try again or just scrap the movie entirely.

So what are those "missing" elements Zendaya referenced? 

Well, Aaliyah's family isn't on board with the movie. It released a statement to multiple outlets, including Rolling Stone, when Lifetime announced the film, saying, "She deserves to have a tribute much more grand than a television network debut." 

There's also the issue of music. Multiple reports claim Lifetime is having trouble securing any rights to Aaliyah's songs ... which would be a major problem. (Via Blackground Records / Aaliyah

Imagine "Selena" without "Dreaming of You." 

Or "Walk the Line" without "Ring of Fire." The movies just wouldn't work. 

But it's the roadblock deceased musicians' estates throw at a lot of potential pictures. 

Jimi Hendrix's estate didn't grant any music rights to the upcoming biopic "All Is by My Side," so the movie features none of the legendary guitarist's songs. 

Then there's the tricky ordeal of securing life story rights. If you can tell your story based wholly on original research, you don't need any permission to make a movie. 

If you need more information, you can option a book or article about the person — which is what Lifetime did for the Aaliyah movie. (Via Goodreads

Or you can get the subject on board with the project — like when VH1 brought TLC's story to the small screen, with Chilli and T-Boz serving as executive producers. 

​​And it's a lot easier to take on a dead person's story than a living person's — as the New York State Bar Association blog explains, living people have the right to publicity, which gives you control over your public image. 

It's the right that lets celebs sue companies for using their image to promote products without their consent. (Via TMZ

But California can complicate that — The Hollywood Reporter calls the state's laws "generous" when it comes to the transfer of the right of publicity to a deceased celebrity's estate.

Also complicated is that, a lot of times, musicians' lives are filled with not-so-pretty details. 

Lifetime's other controversial biopic, the Angela Bassett-directed Whitney Houston story, is reportedly still figuring out how to handle the late star's drug abuse. (Via ABC

And that also seems to be the reason why Janis Joplin's life story hasn't made it to the big screen, despite numerous attempts — her estate's not on board with how gritty the story is. (Via Rolling Stone, New York Daily News, MTV, The Huffington Post, Playbill

Entertainment Weekly calls that the "warts-and-all portrayal." And the executive producer of the Aaliyah movie tells the mag you have to find a star with the power, performance chops and physical resemblance to bring it all to life. 

Which brings us full circle — as with any high-profile casting, there were concerns Zendaya wouldn't cut it as Aaliyah. (Via Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group

Madame Noire notes that many cited her lack of physical resemblance to the singer as a major concern — and that backlash might have impacted her decision to quit the project. 

Still, Hollywood isn't giving up on the music biopic — on top of Lifetime's Whitney Houston movie, projects about Kurt Cobain, James Brown, Freddie Mercury and countless others are also in the works.