His music has accompanied over 50 years of our collective lives, so isn’t it about time it became the soundtrack to Stevie Wonder’s life at a theater near you?
One August afternoon in North Carolina, nearly 45 years ago, we almost lost Stevie Wonder in a car accident. He was 23 and had just released his 16th studio album. The details of the accident are fuzzy — some say a log slid from the back of a flatbed truck, crashed through the windshield and hit Stevie square in the head. Others say there were no logs in the back of the flatbed truck at the time the two vehicles made contact. But what is certain is that Stevie was in a coma for a few days, and there was a chance he wouldn’t make it.
It’s the stuff movies are made of. But even without a near-fatal car crash, Stevie’s life has been pretty darn extraordinary. Born a few weeks premature on May 13, 1950, Stevland Judkins was placed in an incubator for 52 days — a mistake that exposed him to too much oxygen and caused him to go blind. If this weren’t enough, his father, a hustler with a mean streak, would beat his mother and put her to work on the streets when they needed the money.
And those were just the early years. Of the 68 Stevie has lived, he’s spent roughly 56 of them singing, songwriting, touring and advocating for people with disabilities. I can personally attest to the fact that his concerts still get folks up on their feet. And so I wonder: Where’s his biopic?
Spike Lee has expressed interest in making a documentary on Stevie before, but it’s fun to think about how entertaining a biopic could be — if done right, of course. Remember how fun it was to watch Chadwick Boseman channel his inner James Brown, and Jamie Foxx do his Oscar-winning Ray Charles impersonation? Or to take it way back: when Angela Bassett shook a tail feather as Tina Turner?
In honor of Stevie Wonder’s birthday May 13, here are six reasons a big-budget biopic about the harmonica-harboring, piano-playing icon needs to be made.
1. Stevie went from having nothing to having a number-one song — without an ounce of help from the internet.
Stevie’s mother, Lula Hardaway, eventually fled her volatile circumstances in Saginaw and moved her three kids to Detroit, working hard enough in the fish markets to buy a small brick home in the East Side ghetto. Rather than overly coddle Stevie because of his blindness, Lula encouraged him to skate, swim and engage in other typical childhood activities. He started playing the drums, harmonica and piano at seven and performed popular songs on street corners and at dances and parties.
One particular fan of his happened to be the brother of Ronnie White, a member of Motown’s first hit group, The Miracles — an incredible stroke of luck that got Stevie through the door and eventually led to a contract between him, his mother and Motown’s Tamla label. He released his first two albums back to back, but it was his electric performance of “Fingertips” at Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1962 that granted him his first of many number-one hits.
The movie should include: Little Stevie Wonder wowing Ronnie White with “Lonely Boy,” a song the 11-year-old composed himself.
2. Stevie helped make MLK day a national holiday and created a new standard birthday song…at the same time.
You know that more soulful way of singing happy birthday to someone? You know, the version someone usually starts singing after the traditional version has run its course? That song has a full set of lyrics beyond “happy birthday to ya,” and they were written by Stevie in honor of his support for the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday.
Legislation for the holiday began four days after King was assassinated, but the push for Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday — spearheaded by Coretta Scott King and the King Center — took 30 years. Those 30 years were filled with a tremendous amount of legwork, including countless petitions and marches and multiple testimonies in front of Congress. But arguably the most visible push was that of Stevie’s “Happy Birthday,” which appeared on his 1980 album Hotter Than July along with an album sleeve note advocating for the legislation.
The movie should include: Stevie’s four-month album tour with opening act Gil Scott-Heron as they sought to raise awareness for the holiday. The tour was an overall success, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing: Bob Marley, Stevie’s original opening act, fell ill and died of cancer six months later; and on one night of the tour Stevie was faced with the task of telling his audience John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his apartment.
3. Stevie has no problem serving up his funk with a side of social commentary.
Last September I had the joy of seeing Stevie perform at the Global Citizens Festival, where he took not one but both knees onstage “in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world and our globe.”
Stevie has always been an ambassador of love and faith, but that doesn’t mean he’ll shy away from commenting on discrimination and poverty, as he does in “Living for the City,” or on the traumatic experience of a veteran returning from Vietnam, as in “Front Line.” The best biopics are ones that weave the political and social climate into the story of the subject, and that wouldn’t be hard to do with this one.
The movie should include: Stevie dissing Richard Nixon in his hit song “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” with The Jackson 5 singing the “doo-doo-wops” behind him. Incidentally, Nixon announced his resignation within days of this song’s release in August 1974.
4. Stevie has worked with a diverse list of individuals, which would mean a lot of fun possibilities for supporting roles.
Stevie has always played well with others. He has written hits for Michael Jackson, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and many other legends. But he has also performed duets with stars old and young, like Paul McCartney, Dionne Warwick, Snoop Dogg, Ariana Grande and — for one of my personal favorite Disney soundtrack duets of all-time — 98 Degrees.
But then there are those other projects: the less intuitive, less familiar ones that haven’t been widely lauded and, subsequently, have shifted closer to the bottom of the pile. Stevie produced 12 original songs for Spike Lee’s lukewarmly received 1991 film, Jungle Fever, but the one song many can name today is remembered for its somewhat rudimentary lyrics about interracial dating (“We’ve got jungle fever / We’re in love”). Carlton Banks is probably partly to blame for its mockery, too.
Also peculiar was his soundtrack for The Secret Life of Plants, a 1979 documentary widely lambasted for being fake science. But strange or not, his refusal to limit himself to a “sure commercial thing” is a highly respectable trait in an artist.
The movie should include: The conversation that led to Stevie’s work on this plants project, as well as a look at the making of the music video for “The Secret Life of Plants,” because I just have so many questions about it…
5. Everyone, from The King of Pop to President Obama, loves Stevie.
You don’t have to listen to Michael Jackson wax poetic about Stevie’s creative genius to know how incredible of a human being he is, and you don’t need to see the star-studded Grammy-sponsored tribute for Stevie back in 2015 or his induction into the NAACP Hall of Fame in 2008 (although, really, you should watch and listen to all these things).
Plus, not only is he one of just three artists to have won an Album of the Year Grammy three times, but he’s also the only artist to have won the award for three consecutive studio albums: his entirely self-produced album, Innervisions in ’73 (notable for “Higher Ground”); Fulfillingness’ First Finale in ’74 (notable for “Boogie on Reggae Woman”) and Songs in the Key of Life in ’76 (notable for too many songs to put just one here).
The movie should include: Stevie winning an Oscar for Best Original Song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which appeared in the 1984 Gene Wilder–directed film, The Woman in Red. Also, Obama telling Stevie that Talking Book was the first album he owned.
6. Finally — most importantly — Stevie just seems like a cool dude to be around.
Stevie’s spiritual and meditative aura is apparent in all his cameos and interviews, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be playful — take his appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” when he told The Late Late Show host, “All English guys look alike,” or when he playfully threatened to hit Dick Cavett upside the head in a 1970 interview.
The movie should include: The personal bits of Stevie that the cameras can’t really catch, like the man who has been married three times and has nine children, or the man who introduced countless Americans to the sampler in a 1986 appearance on The Cosby Show. It would also be fun to get a glimpse of Stevie’s songwriting process.
Biopics, of course, have their pitfalls. They simplify and sometimes feel cheap. But Stevie’s charisma — if depicted by the right actor — could be just the thing to give a biopic a pair of legs. And if just half of that charisma were poured into a spirited rendition of “As” or “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” or “I Wish,” it’s possible that movie might just get up and walk its way straight to the Oscars.