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Marvin Gaye: Mixed messages heard on the grapevine

A biopic of Marvin Gaye is set for the screen, but the singer's family are not happy about it, discovers Geoffrey Macnab

Janis Gaye was at home in Rhode Island last month when she read a story about plans to shoot a film in Belgium about her late ex-husband, the legendary soul singer Marvin Gaye, and the recording of his last great album, Midnight Love.

There have been many attempts over the years to make a biopic about Marvin Gaye, who was shot dead by his father in 1984 aged 44. Cameron Crowe was reported last year to be attempting a film with Terrence Howard as a possible lead. F Gary Gray was also trying to hatch a Gaye biopic. And James Gandolfini was lined up to play Gaye's concert promoter Freddy Cousaert opposite Jesse L Martin's Marvin in another project.

The latest movie, to which Julien Temple was linked as a potential director at the Berlin Film Festival, plans to look at the period Gaye spent living in the sleepy seaside town of Ostend in the early 1980s. At that time, Gaye, Motown's biggest star, was considered a spent force. He was being hounded by the taxman. His problems with drugs are well chronicled. He had split from Motown. However, against the odds and in the unlikely setting of the Katy Studios in Ohain, Belgium, he recorded one of his greatest albums.

Janis Gaye has generally felt "very sceptical" about attempts to bring Marvin Gaye's story to screen. "It's 26 years later and no one's life has ever been the same since Marvin was killed... it was all blown apart that day. It has been very difficult to know who to trust over the years."

The hurdles in front of anyone trying to make a Gaye biopic are manifold. One essential requirement is the rights to the music. Another is an actor capable of playing the singer – and performing credibly such songs as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing". Then, there are the interests of his family to consider – those of his first wife, Anna Gordy, elder sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, and of Janis Gaye and her children.

"There is always that inevitable anxiety of people making a movie so that you can found out why he (Marvin) was shot," she says. "That question always comes up – 'let's dig into this and find out why Marvin's father shot him'. None of us will ever know that because all the players in that horrible scene are dead."

She is also concerned that a film set in the last years of Gaye's life would "focus on his drug abuse, on other negative aspects of his life".

Janis, the daughter of musician Slim Galliard, was with Marvin Gaye from 1973 until just before his death. She first met him when she was 17 and still in high school, around the time Gaye was working on "Let's Get It On". "Supposedly, I was the inspiration for the emotion that you hear in the record," she says of Gaye's most erotically charged album. They married in 1977 and divorced in 1981 but remained very close.

You don't expect Motown legends to be living in small Flemish seaside towns, so what took them there? "Marvin was unconventional and Marvin liked the element of surprise. He liked to do the absolute polar opposite of what you thought he would do," she says. "We were right on the ocean. In wintertime, it snows on the beach. We'd look out of the window and the sand was covered with snow."

Janis reminisces about trips to the butcher, the baker and the vegetable market. The locals all knew who Gaye was but largely left him to his own devices. Eventually, when his mother fell ill, Gaye returned to the States. "It [Ostend] was a safe haven for a while but I think it was a little too serene", she says.

Janis has strong opinions about who should play Marvin Gaye. Many names have been floated over the years, among them Jamie Foxx and Blair Underwood. For her, Denzel Washington is the one. She points out that Washington's background is similar to that of Gaye – he too was the son of a minister. "I don't think too many people have seen Denzel dance but from what I hear, he can cut a pretty cool rug. I just feel he would be the ideal Marvin, if there is such a thing."