The Death of Sam Cooke to Be Investigated With a “Murder Mystery” Biopic

By  · Published on March 18th, 2015

Billboard/Wikipedia Commons

With everyone talking about The Jinx right now, prepare for many more attempts to uncover real murder cases in TV and film projects. Not all will be documentaries, either, as is hinted by the angle taken with news of a Sam Cooke biopic. The Hollywood Reporter makes the connection between the HBO miniseries sensation about alleged killer Robert Durst and a fully dramatized motion picture about the famous ’50s and ’60s soul singer, best known for hits like “Cupid,” “Twistin’ the Night Away” and “Wonderful World.” But the comparison doesn’t seem unwarranted.

I’ve wondered for years why Cooke hasn’t yet been the subject of a biopic, and mostly my thinking has had to do with the strange circumstances of his death in 1964 at age 33. He was killed in a Los Angeles motel by its manager, who claimed self defense, and he was mostly naked and had allegedly been searching for a girl he’d brought to the establishment against her will. There’s plausibility to that story, especially for the time, but certain details have made the incident out to be more of a mystery than a mere tragedy. Maybe a murder mystery.

“My pitch to [Cooke’s family] was a murder mystery. Who did this?,” cop-turned-musician-turned-producer Romeo Antonio told the trade. “And it’s being written in that fashion … I’m treating it like a murder investigation.”

The movie, currently titled Sam Cooke: The Truth, according to its IMDb listing, has now earned the family’s approval with that approach. But can a biopic do the same sort of thing docs like The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost trilogy in affecting the events of murder cases? Or will this just be about getting the audience and fans to question the official writing of history, akin to what Oliver Stone does at the end of The Doors with its hint that Jim Morrison may still be alive or at least had died by some other manner than reported?

I’d love it if Antonio can convince us that Cooke was shot in a conspiracy involving the mob or as a result of his part in the civil rights movement or some other truth he can discover. But I’ll also be happy enough with a biopic filled with Cooke’s songs, a ton of which are among my favorites of all time.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.