Tom Wilson oversaw some of Bob Dylan’s most transformational albums, spiked the mainstream with lysergic sounds of The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, and left his mark on some of the most innovative, indelible music of the twentieth century, from Sun Ra to Simon and Garfunkel. Yet, as Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall opined in 2014, Wilson remains the greatest music producer you’ve never heard of—a maverick whose open mind and unfailing ear changed the course of history, but whose impact remains overlooked by all but the most dedicated of audiophiles.
That may be about to change. Variety reports that Wilson’s estate is behind a new biopic, currently titled Tom Wilson: Lost In Transition, that could see release as early as next year. The film would dramatize Wilson’s life, tracing key moments from his childhood in Waco to his unlikely emergence as one of the key musical minds of the 1960s. Producer Greg Richling tells Variety that the movie should make Wilson “a household name with famed producers such as George Martin, Quincy Jones, and Jerry Wexler” (if only in households that have strong opinions on stereo receivers). At the very least, it could finally shed some light on how a jazz-loving Black man raised in Jim Crow–era Texas came to be a central figure of rock history.
Wilson certainly sounds like the kind of charismatic protagonist you could build a movie around. Despite a working method that was often described as “laid-back”—the exact opposite of a gun-waving Phil Spector, say—Wilson cut a vivid figure. A 1968 profile in the New York Times Magazine describes Wilson’s six-foot-four frame draped in a workaday uniform of an “antelope suede jacket” and white bell bottoms as he zipped around Manhattan in his blue 1960 Aston Martin. Wilson was also an incorrigible ladies’ man, allegedly spending so much time in the studio chatting up women on the phone that Dylan threatened to fire him.
Wilson was also a fascinating study in contradictions. He was a conservative, tennis-playing, cum laude Harvard graduate, a president of the school’s Young Republicans club who fell in love with the avant-garde. He was also a Black man charged with making pivotal decisions in the largely white genres of rock and folk. This may not have affected his relationships with the artists he worked with, though it couldn’t help but be a factor in such a deeply segregated America. In a 2015 remembrance for Rolling Stone, an unnamed “friend” suggested that Wilson’s propensity for dating white women rankled his bosses and ultimately hurt his career.
Yet, in that same Rolling Stone article, Wilson’s son maintains that, despite his pioneering achievements, his father never saw himself as a political figure. By all accounts, Wilson was completely detached from the civil rights and Black Power movements. He saw his story as his own, one that was entirely about his own perseverance and an unusually perceptive ear.
Historically, the music biopic isn’t great at capturing this kind of nuance. It’s a genre that prefers broad, scenery-chewing strokes and Wikipedia factoids: Ray Charles was a genius who struggled with racial discrimination and drug addiction. Freddie Mercury was a genius who struggled with his sexuality (and also drugs). Jim Morrison, well, mostly just struggled with drugs.
There are certainly elements of Wilson’s life that adhere to the biopic’s tragic-yet-inspiring formula. He survived a childhood bout with tuberculosis. He had a mercurial rise to fame, before slipping into relative obscurity in the 1970s. And he died too soon, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 47. Still, there’s little of the epic, rise-and-fall-and-redemption sweep that the genre normally demands. Tom Wilson didn’t self-destruct in some satisfyingly cinematic way. By all accounts, he left producing quietly and on his own accord, seeking out newer diversions in filmmaking and prepping an ambitious “R&B opera” that, sadly, never got off the ground.
In fact, despite his statuesque size, most of the people who knew him describe Tom Wilson not in larger-than-life terms, but as a thoughtful, largely hands-off influence. Wilson simply knew what an artist’s music should sound like, and then he made it happen. This doesn’t square with your typical music biopic, either, which usually glosses over the tedious business of songwriting and studio overdubs in favor of a few stagey “eureka” moments.
Again, there are probably a few of those you could cherry-pick and embellish—like the time Wilson had Al Kooper sit in on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” watching as Kooper laid down the song’s percolating organ line over Wilson’s own objections. Or the remix session in which Wilson transformed Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” from a whispery acoustic dud into the Rosetta Stone of modern folk-rock.
But staging any of these scenes would require securing the rights to some of the most iconic, and most expensive, songs in history. Any biopic would surely have to dance around all of them; we’re more likely to hear about this epochal music in dialogue, delivered by a parade of badly bewigged actors doing ersatz versions of Dylan, Zappa, and Andy Warhol.
It’s possible to make a movie about famous musicians while skirting copyright—just look at Backbeat (The Beatles), Jimi: All Is By My Side (Jimi Hendrix), or the recent Stardust (David Bowie). But if you have watched those, you also know it can make for an incredibly frustrating—and even worse, forgettable—experience.
It’s not clear why Wilson’s estate doesn’t instead throw its weight behind a documentary. A number of attempts have cropped up over the years. Singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw has been working on his own crowdfunded Wilson project since 2016, and the Waco Tribune-Herald in March quoted him as saying that production is currently “in the endgame phase.” It’s likely to be the more edifying version of Wilson’s story, and satisfy more of the people who would be most interested in seeing it.
But perhaps, like Tom Wilson himself, the makers of the forthcoming biopic see a way to reinvent the formula slightly, and introduce elements that push the genre beyond its current conventions. Either way, at least Wilson’s name won’t go unknown for much longer.