P. Diddy will play bluesman Robert Johnson in a biopic -- and Tom Sinclair wonders if this odd bit of casting is as crazy as it sounds

By Tom Sinclair
Updated April 24, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Sean Combs: Anthony Moore/NY Photo Press/NewsCom

Hollywood gives P. Diddy the blues

You may have heard that Congress has proclaimed 2003 ”the Year of the Blues,” and that there are all sorts of tributes, musical and otherwise, on tap to honor this great American art form. I, for one, applaud these efforts, for without the blues, there would be no rock & roll. And without rock & roll, there would be no rock critics. And I’d be out of a job.

Seriously, though — the blues is the source of the most vibrant, moving, and exciting sounds extant; as Miles Davis once noted, his music is ”all blues.” So it’s heartening to hear that HBO Films (which, like Entertainment Weekly, is owned by AOL Time Warner) plans to begin production on a long-overdue biopic about the late bluesman Robert Johnson, composer of such classics as ”Crossroads” and ”Love in Vain.” Johnson, who died in 1937, is widely regarded as the Patron Saint of the Blues — the guy laid the groundwork for the form on the 29 seminal songs that constitute his legacy. His importance in the grand scheme of rock & roll can scarcely be overstated.

Naturally, one would expect the producers to carefully consider their choice of an actor for the lead role. Wesley Snipes, perhaps, or Don Cheadle. Or possibly they could go with a musician, like Robert Cray or Keb Mo. No such luck. The part is going to? Sean ”P. Diddy” Combs.

This news has given some blues fans a case of the deep blues. Just about everyone I’ve talked to — at least, those who care about Johnson and his work — has expressed horror at this seemingly misguided bit of casting. The King of Sampling playing the King of the Blues? Puh-leeze. It’s not that Combs is completely without acting talent — he did a competent job in ”Monster’s Ball.” Yet the feeling that he is just wrong for the part seems to be near universal. As one flabbergasted colleague of mine put it, ”Does he even KNOW who Robert Johnson was?” (Apparently not; a reliable source tells me that Combs had never heard of Johnson before being offered the role.)

But before you start picketing the production company, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

After my initial negative reaction to the news, I started wondering — just how bad could Combs be? After all, not much is really known about Johnson beyond the oft-repeated myth that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent. The man is a veritable blank slate. And, truth be told, the sleepy-eyed Combs has always presented a pretty blank face to the public. Lots of folks believe that he knows a thing or two about dealing with the devil, too — or at least staying a step or two ahead of the hellhounds. I mean, who knows? It could turn out that he was tailor-made for this part.

What do you think? Is P. Diddy a good choice for the role of Robert Johnson? And if not, who should play Johnson?