A little known fact that even hardcore Spike Lee fans may not know: the “Do The Right Thing” filmmaker has been trying to make a film adaptation of George Gershwin's legendary 1935 American folk opera "Porgy And Bess” for over a decade now. Lee came close in the early aughts, but talks with the notoriously fussy Gershwin estate reportedly fell apart at the very last minute after what was allegedly was a lot of back and forth.
A famous 1959 version of the film was shot in 70MM and starred Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Pearl Bailey, and in 2011 it was chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. But somehow, it’s impossible to find, and isn't available anywhere on DVD. Why? Well, the Samuel Goldwyn project was beset with problems. Rouben Mamoulian was originally hired to direct the film, and was subsequently fired and replaced by the great Otto Preminger who has the film's final screen credit. Several of the actors singing voices were poorly dubbed. The Gershwin estate was reportedly very disappointed with the finished product, and they removed the picture from release in 1974. Unless you catch it on TCM or bootleg, you’re not going to catch it at all.
Lee’s aspirations to adapt Gerswhin’s “Porgy And Bess,” set among the black residents of a fishing village in 1912 South Carolina, is somewhat the stuff of legend and is rarely reported on, and so those in the know perked up when Lee finally went to go see the 2012 Broadway revival "The Gershwins' Porgy And Bess." “Porgy and Bess Is Great. Audra McDonald As Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy And My Man David Alan Grier as Sportin' Life. C'mon Folks CHECK THIS OUT,” he wrote on Twitter (the revival was nominated for 10 awards in the 2012 Tony Awards). So when The Playlist sat down with Lee this week to discuss his latest film, “Red Hook Summer,” we couldn’t help but ask about “Porgy And Bess.”
While taciturn as usual on subjects he doesn’t want you to know about — “when people need to know something I'll let them know,” he laughed — Lee did confirm that he is still negotiating to make “Porgy And Bess” happen.
“That's still in the works. As a film not a play,” he clarified as we had just been talking about Lee’s first Broadway gig “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.” Pressed a little further, Lee added, “Yeah I want to make it, but I'm in long discussions with both estates,” he said, meaning The Gershwin and Heyward estates. The libretto was written by DuBose Heyward, who also wrote “Porgy,” the 1925 novel that was eventually adapted into “Porgy and Bess” in 1935 with music by Gershwin.
Asked if rights were complicated, Lee said, “Oh yeah, very tricky,” but the filmmaker confirmed his desire to tackle ‘Porgy,' and explained that making a project within the musical genre has been a goal of his for a long time. “There have been musical elements in my films, but I've been wanting to do a straight up musical for many, many years,” he said.
Will “Porgy & Bess” be his first musical? “Well, unless something happens before it,” he laughed.
With his Michael Jackson documentary “Bad 25” debuting at the Venice Film Festival at the end of the month, the filmmaker also briefly discussed “Brooklyn Loves MJ,” a Fort Greene-based Cain-and-Abel-like story that Lee wrote a few years ago, which touches upon gentrification in Lee’s beloved neighborhood (his 40s Acres And A Mule offices reside there). The drama also takes place in the aftermath of Michael Jackson’s untimely death in the summer of 2009 and how it affects some of the characters emotionally. Asked if the picture was still on the table, Lee confirmed that it was.
“Yeah, hopefully we’ll get money for that too,” he said, never one to count his chickens before they’ve hatched. “That's coming up too, August 25th in Prospect Park,” Lee said of his yearly “Brooklyn Loves MJ” party, which he throws to celebrate the life of Michael Jackson. “The theme is going to be the Bad album. I'm going to show some clips from the [‘Bad 25’] documentary too.” Lee also confirmed that “Bad 25” screens opening night in Venice on August 31.
“Red Hook Summer” opens this Friday, August 10th. More from this interview soon.