TV One’s The Bobby DeBarge Story and the Unlucky 8 Ways It Failed
By Matthew Allen
Ever since 2008, TV One has produced its Unsung documentary series on some of Black music’s most talented and under-appreciated artists, from The O’Jays, Heatwave and Donny Hathaway to Lloyd, Kenny Lattimore and Avant.
In 12 seasons and counting, Unsung has gained a reputation for its intensely candid and uncompromisingly tragic revelations about some of our favorite musicians. From drugs, to murder, to changing fads to being cheated out of money and family feuds. Such narratives are ripe for movie adaptation.
On June 29th, TV One premiered The Bobby DeBarge Story, a film on the late lead singer of the band Switch (Unsung episode 124) and eldest brother of Grammy winners DeBarge (Unsung episode four). His life was rife with immeasurable, abusive turmoil but sublime natural musical ability, evident in R&B classics like “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name.” With a life like his, creating a motion picture seemed like a slam dunk, but alas, the shot didn’t go through. The Bobby DeBarge Story was a blown opportunity to tell a great story about a tragic figure who deserved more adulation.
This was TV One’s second Unsung film adaptation,” if you will. In 2016, they aired Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story based on the 1980’s hit-making vocalist (Unsung episode 25). While reception was mixed – 67% audience ranking on Rotten Tomatoes – compared to The Bobby DeBarge Story, Love Under New Management comes off like Lady Sings the Blues.
soulhead ranked the eight unlucky ways that TV One messed this film up:
- Wigs – Let’s just get this out of the way, so we needn’t discuss it again beyond this and we can concentrate on more pressing matters. The hairpieces for most of the actors, but particularly for Roshon Fegan’s portrayal of Bobby, were atrocious and extremely distracting. They looked thrown on, like they just came from a beauty show and walked right onto the stage lot. This wasn’t the worst thing about the movie, but it damn certain was the hottest topic on the social media threads. Let the memes commence!
- Omission of Bobby’s Bisexuality – In the Switch Unsung, group founder and and DeBarge family friend, Greg Williams, explained how Bobby had disclosed to him that he “liked boys and girls.” Bobby’s bisexuality was a crucial issue that not only could’ve explained the dissolution of his relationship with Latoya Jackson (ironically one of the only convincing roles in the film, and one of the shortest), but also his growing rift with members of Switch. It was a part of his identity that also could’ve been linked to the abuse from his father. Although his father’s physical abuse was prominently covered in the film, the aspect of sexual abuse was only in passing, via one scene in which Bobby was put into a dress as a child by his father. This was a blown occasion to show the complexities of Bobby’s personality.
- Pacing – The film goes from flashbacks to present day a lot. And while this is a common trope to establish character development, far too much time is spent on various scenes and the pacing is slowed to a crawl. In one of the first scenes, Bobby, Tommy and Greg are having a dispute in front of their manager. The scene goes on way more than it should have. Not much time was needed to establish the tension between Bobby and Greg. And as for the flashbacks, they were long- winded as well. A scene in which child Bobby tries to intervene when his father attempts to molest older sister Bunny has Bobby Sr. going on and on about Bobby trying to be a hero and who’s going to look after him if he’s gone. It’s cringe-worthy in terms of how much scenes like these drag the story.
- Directing – Roshon Fegan, at age 27, is a seasoned actor, particular in television, acting on several Disney programs and in reoccurring roles on Green Leaf and Insecure. However, you’d never know he acted a day in his life with his mostly manic portrayal of the titular character. With that said, the blame mainly falls on the director, Russ Parr. Bobby was constantly in a state of disarray, and it makes the viewer concentrate on the acting rather than the character. What’s more is that multiple actors were more like caricatures than real people who actually lived. Tyra Ferrell, who plays Bobby’s mother, was heavy handed with the God and Prayer talk. Although Mrs. DeBarge was documented as a prayerful woman, Parr had Ferrell acting as if she was in a Tyler Perry play! Marcel, who like Lloyd, is a novice at acting, was far too much the jaded, bitter victim. While the real life James did indeed suffer physical abuse from Bobby as children out of jealously, Marcel played it far too over the top in their exchanges with one another.
- Casting – Famed director/producer Lee Daniels (Empire, The Butler, Star) held the reigns as of co-casting director, and his understanding of how high profile names being hired to act in a film about an unsung Black star is more than understandable. However, the choices clearly missed the mark. Outkast MC Big Boi all but phoned in his role as Motown chairman Barry Gordy. Former Murder Inc. singer Lloyd (Unsung episode 146) was underwhelming & unconvincing as Switch founder Greg Williams. Looking back at his promotional interviews, his admission of apprehension due to this being his VERY FIRST ACTING ROLE almost seems like a warning to the audience. Lastly, why does Bobby, the eldest son of 10, look younger than all the siblings throughout the film? It’s because they are! Singer Adrian Marcel, who portrayed James DeBarge – seven years Bobby’s junior – is three years older than Fegan and it showed! Blue Kimble, who’s seven years older than Fegan, plays younger brother Tommy DeBarge, and it was noticeable as hell.
- Storytelling – The start in the present day to transition to the past trope is a familiar one, but, if done right, the cliché can be overlooked. This is not one of those times. By beginning with Bobby on his death bed, and his father coming to see him before it’s too late has no context for people who don’t know who Bobby was. Then to drop the story at 1980 during “I Call Your Name” (when so much of the story happened three years before) felt lazy and assumed every viewer had already seen the Switch Unsung episode. Also, late in the film, when Bobby and younger brother Chico get caught trafficking drugs, there’s NO EXPLANATION on WHY they decided to do it, despite both of them still having record contracts!
- Character Development – The people around the titular character have a great deal to do with the main character’s life and personality. Almost no time is spent on developing the supporting characters around Bobby. When we meet Greg Williams, he’s already fed up with Bobby’s antics and seems bitter and annoyed. Why? What led to this? Bobby’s father did evil things to his family. Why? What was his motivation? Mama DeBarge only mentioned in passing how much being in an interracial marriage affected Bobby Sr.’s life and psyche. Jermaine Jackson was crucial to Bobby’s story and come up at Motown. Where was that? Jermaine mostly talks to and about his siblings in the film and only is referencing Bobby via a telephone call. Even with Bobby, he’s seen dying in hospital at the beginning. What is he dying of? How did he get there? Again, it seems like the screenwriter assumed that everyone who was watching the movie had already seen the Switch and DeBarge Unsung episodes before.
- Omission of Bobby’s Musicianship – The worst thing about this movie, which is saying a lot, is it didn’t show us why we should even care! Why did people care about Michael Jackson, James Brown, Ray Charles and Whitney Houston so much? Why were paparazzi following all their moves? Because they were amazing musicians, that’s why! Not just because of tabloid fodder, but because they had abilities others didn’t. That’s the very reason this movie was made; Bobby DeBarge was an amazing singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist on Motown Records, and mentor to multi-platinum selling siblings DeBarge. We saw practically none of that! Outside of the last scene when he’s singing to his wife (lip-syncing is trash, too, by the way), and two fleeting, throwaway scenes of him scribbling lyrics on crumpled sheets of paper, there were no examples of his talent, his natural ability, his songwriting and performance process, nothing. El DeBarge once stated in an interview how intimidated he was of Bobby’s talent, despite the fact that Bobby was mentoring and training him. That’s an important side of Bobby that could’ve been addressed better. Instead, we got a brief encouragement to his siblings before an audition. The drama of Bobby’s life is compelling, but without the context of his talents and achievements to balance it out, there’s no reason for us to care about Bobby.
So, after two Unsung episodes to cull information and inspiration from, TV One fell drastically short of delivering on The Bobby DeBarge Story. Producing a biopic is not an easy thing to do; there are numerous variables that can cause things to go wrong, and you’re not always going to please everyone. At the end of the day, movies are supposed to be entertaining. This was not entertaining. It was even too much of a farce to even be sad. The film was a waste of time. But the only redeemable aspect of this film is that hopefully TV One will learn from these mistakes when it comes to making their next biopic project. On their current pace, they’ve got three years to get their act together. TV One does good work and for the most part, shines a light on artists who need it. So, let’s root for them to succeed.
Check out Bobby DeBarge’s Solo Album (alluded to in the film)
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.