Zendaya will no longer play iconic R&B singer Aaliyah in a biopic planned by Lifetime, the network said on Sunday.
“We are sad Zendaya will no longer portray Aaliyah. Production is currently on hold,” Lifetime’s public relations department said on Twitter.
Lifetime’s confirmation follows a statement from Zendaya’s representatives obtained by TheWrap on Sunday saying the 17-year-old Disney star “is no longer involved in the project.”
The proposed television movie about the singer who died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22, had been mired in controversy with Aaliyah fans and her family expressing disapproval of the project. There was even a fan petition seeking to shut the production down.
According to Lifetime’s announcement, Zendaya had planned to re-record at least four of Aaliyah’s songs. But according to E!, Zendaya left the project amid “production issues, including problems obtaining the rights to Aaliyah’s music.”
When TheWrap spoke to Jomo Hankerson, Aaliyah’s cousin and president of her label Blackground Records, he said last week that the family was ready to withhold whatever rights it holds regarding Aaliyah from the production.
“Because we control the masters [to Aaliyah’s recordings], the rights and some images of the musical elements that we put together like the videos, and photo shoots and things that we did, what we can just withhold those elements from the production, which we would do,” Hankerson said.
That would make it difficult for the production, but not impossible to gain usage rights to Aaliyah’s songs. Blackground Records owns the recordings of Aaliyah’s voice, but not the publishing rights. So, Lifetime can purchase rights to re-record the singles from the songwriters, which include Timbaland, Missy Elliott and the late Static Major.
Although Zendaya was targeted by Aaliyah fans who didn’t approve of her casting, Hankerson wanted to make it clear that Aaliyah’s family had nothing against the young singer and actress.
“I think she’s a lovely young girl,” Hankerson said. “I have a problem with the whole production, so casting would be a part of it. But I never wanted to single her out, because I think that she’s a good, young actress and that she’s just trying to take an opportunity that was presented to her.”
The working title for the television movie was “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B” and is based on the bestselling book “Aaliyah: More Than a Woman” by former Time music editor Christopher Farley.
The film will be produced by Aaliyah Productions, Inc., with Howard Braunstein (“The Informant!”) and Debra Martin Chase (“Sparkle”) executive producing. Bradley Walsh (“Turn the Beat Around”) is directing, working from a script by Michael Elliot (“Brown Sugar”). It was set to film this summer for a fall premiere.
Lifetime also recently announced it’s working on a Whitney Houston biopic, directed by Angela Bassett. Former “America’s Next Top Model” contender-turned-actress YaYa DaCosta will play the legendary singer. Yolonda Ross is set to play the “Bodyguard” actress’ longtime friend and rumored lesbian lover, Robyn Crawford. It’s scheduled to premiere in 2015.