By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The estate of the great blues musician B.B. King has clarified some issues regarding the content of a forthcoming King film. Pre-production on the project is set to begin in 2021, with esteemed actor Wendell Pierce set to portray King. Vassal Benford, chairman of King’s estate, told Variety that the Pierce film “The Thrill Is On” was a drama about King’s friendship with drummer Michael Zanetis. It is not a biopic.
Questions initially emerged when Pierce announced he would play King via Twitter on Oct. 19. “We are official. Preparation has begun on a film where I will be honored to play the great B.B. King,” Pierce wrote. This led many to assume he would be playing King in a biopic retelling the late singer-guitarist’s life story. Pierce expanded his explanation Oct. 22, writing: “The Estate of B.B. King has requested I clarify the film ‘The Thrill Is On’ is not a biopic in the traditional sense. It is a dramatized version of a real-life friendship story in the spirit of the film ‘Round Midnight.’”
The estate added there are two separate projects in the works concerning King. One is “The Thrill Is On,” which is not associated with the estate. The other, an upcoming biopic of King’s life, is being produced by the estate. Though Benford says King’s estate has considered Pierce to play King in the biopic, they are also considering a number of other actors for the role, including “Saturday Night Live” star Kenan Thompson. The estate also said they are in discussions with a major director for the biopic. “I am not qualified to write a biopic of Mr. King’s life, but this decade of his life is a chapter I lived with him,” Zanetis told Variety. “Our friendship flourished until our last visit in 2011.”
“We want to be crystal clear that the film announced by Pierce is not a biopic, as there are several major players involved in the new B.B. King biopic and the estate does not want there to be any confusion as to the nature of each separate project,” Benford told Variety. “One is a docudrama, and the other is the official B.B. King biopic approved by corporate management of the B.B. King estate and trust as a part of B.B. King’s legacy initiative.”
In a press release, the film is described as “the inspiring true story of how a chance meeting between Zanetis, a young musician, and B.B. King in 1980 led to King being the first blues artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990.”
Pierce has been part of the film produced and co-written by Zanetis since 2009. But the original production titled “B.B. King and I” ran into legal trouble in 2012. Zanetis sued King after receiving a cease-and-desist order from King’s representatives. However, both Pierce and Zanetis have said King gave them his blessing to make the film before his death in 2015.