Most people familiar with Sublime’s music know front man Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose right as his life was taking off: He’d just gotten married and had a son, and his band’s best album was weeks away from being released. Now the group’s backstory is set to be told in full with Hunger Games’ director Francis Lawrence signing on to a just-announced biopic of the trio. Unlike most bands to get the biopic treatment, Sublime only stuck around long enough to put out three records — 40oz. to Freedom, Robbin’ the Hood, and the self-titled Sublime — and didn’t achieve success until after Nowell passed and the group disbanded.
That Sublime were from Long Beach is vital to who they were and the music they made (consider the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish, two other ska punk bands in the ’90s who were, crucially and clearly, from Boston and Orange County). While most of the country was looking to Seattle’s grunge scene in the early ’90s, Sublime was mixing punk rock with dancehall, sampling hip-hop and dubstep, and singing about prostitutes, riots, and getting high to surfers, skaters, and stoners all along the beach cities. But because Sublime’s music has stood the test of time and earned them millions of fans, Nowell has, for better or worse, become SoCal’s Johnny Cash — shirtless and stoned rather than the “Man in Black.” It always seemed inevitable that his tale would be adapted for a wider audience. Will the rest of the world like what they see when the movie comes out? Difficult to tell, but maybe with the right players, Sublime’s story can make it as far as their music did. Here’s who we think can step in to tell the story. (Spoiler: We didn’t cast Lou Dog.)
Bradley Nowell (front man): Joe Keery
So many qualities are needed to portray Bradley Nowell, the front man, songwriter, and creative force behind Sublime. Nowell was known for his simple yet genius songwriting abilities and self-destructive qualities in equal measure, so any actors worth considering need to look at home in legendary recording sessions and numerous rehab stings. They need to be able to galvanize the surfers, jocks, stoners, punks, and rastas to sing along together. In short, they have to be “well qualified to represent the LBC.” Joe Keery has the whole, tonally confusing package. He’s capable of being a baby-faced goofball (Stranger Things) one moment and a scummy, mischievous madman (Spree) the next. There is also a strong case to be made for Jimmy Tatro, the king of playing charming SoCal scumbros, but Keery has more emotional range and leading-man qualities to take the story into the dark places it will inevitably need to go. Watch him slowly unravel as a social-media-obsessed loser who livestreams a murder-filled rampage in order to go viral in Spree and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Plus, he’s displayed his musical chops as a former psych-rock band Post Animal member and with his own musical project, Djo. — Nic Juarez
Eric Wilson (bassist): Jonah Hill
Sometimes the most obvious choice is the best choice, which is the case when casting Eric Wilson, Sublime’s bassist and Nowell’s lifelong friend. Wilson and Nowell met in junior high, started a punk band named Hogan’s Heroes (later renamed Sloppy Seconds), and eventually formed Sublime with Wilson’s other childhood friend, Bud Gaugh. Wilson was known for being more good-natured than his mercurial bandmates, a fitting quality for Jonah Hill and his stoner charm. And doesn’t Hill already look like he’s in a Sublime cover band? Let’s not overthink this one. — N.J.
Bud Gaugh (drummer): Asa Butterfield
Aside from Nowell, there isn’t a trickier role to cast than Bud Gaugh, Sublime’s drummer. Gaugh also suffered from heroin addiction and missed out on some of Sublime’s early years but returned to record their seminal self-titled album (it was Gaugh who found Nowell’s dead body after waking up from his own heroin-induced sleep). You have to squint, but Asa Butterfield has the same boyish look as Gaugh. And while it would require Butterfield to let loose in a way he hasn’t in Ender’s Game or Sex Education, this seems like the perfect role to shed his mild-mannered image for a bit. — N.J.
Marshall “Ras MG” Goodman (drums, turntables): O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Technically, Sublime was a trio. But in reality, the “Ras MG” who the band shouts out in “Doin’ Time” was a de facto fourth member, providing vocals and turntable scratches and being present alongside the band on tour and in the studio. Goodman is a fascinating person who went on to serve a couple years as a councilmember and mayor of La Palma, California, and so the person playing him needs to have both the goofiness and spontaneity of the years he spent at Nowell’s side and the ability to seem more mature and grounded. O’Shea Jackson Jr. seems like the right fit for this: He had great comedic timing in Ingrid Goes West and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but his work in Den of Thieves and Just Mercy proved that he can handle more. Plus, Jackson is a California boy who goes by the rap name “OMG.” It all syncs up! — Roxana Hadadi
Michael “Miguel” Happoldt (manager): Noah Le Gros
Yes, Ras MG was a de facto fourth member of Sublime. But so was Michael “Miguel” Happoldt, the band’s early producer and manager; creator of the record label, Skunk Records, that eventually signed them; and lead guitar player on “What I Got.” Some of the early beauty of Sublime was how collaborative and freewheeling the creative process was, which allowed for partners like Ras MG and Happoldt to make their own contributions. But Happoldt had to be a wrangler, too, someone who tried to get the band into line and who, after Nowell’s death, had to figure out how to distribute their music. Admittedly, we’re suggesting casting here initially based on looks: Young actor Noah Le Gros bears a noticeable resemblance to young Happoldt. Le Gros is a promising young actor, though, who in the indie eco-horror The Beach House did solid work balancing a cool-guy casualness and increasing stress and confusion over the transforming landscape around him. Those skills seem transferrable to this part. — R.H.
Troy Dendekker (Nowell’s wife): Ella Purnell
Nowell’s death was a tragedy that affected his band and his family, but probably no one more so than Troy, the mother of his son and his wife of one week. In contemporaneous pieces written about Nowell and on Behind the Music, Troy exudes a mixture of weariness, resignation, and determination in response to her husband’s death and her new status as a single parent. It hits all the harder because in those same interviews, how much she loved him is obvious. To handle that array of emotions, how about Ella Purnell from Yellowjackets? As Jackie on the Showtime series, Purnell starts off in the halcyon glow of high-school popularity before cracking under the pressure of wilderness survival, and she has a sunny charisma that could spark against Keery or Tatro as Nowell. We could see Joey King as a backup given her work in The Act, but Purnell’s ability for joy and melancholy makes her our first pick. — R.H.
Gwen Stefani (No Doubt): Anya Taylor-Joy
In the California music scene of the mid-1990s, Sublime and No Doubt were like two sides of the same coin. Tourmates on the 1995 Warped Tour (Sublime got kicked off and then rejoined), the groups had differing personal sensibilities — No Doubt was doing calisthenics to get pumped before shows, which Sublime definitely was not doing — but they were close friends. Fans at the time wondered about a Nowell and Stefani romance, which never seems to have actually materialized. But the Stefani of this time period, before her full-on leap into cultural appropriation and becoming a caricature of herself on The Voice, was a dynamo, an energetic and aggressive force who pushed the boundaries of girly-girl femininity. Anya Taylor-Joy has done the same thing her whole acting career and can weaponize her wide-eyed innocence in the same way Stefani did. And if not Anya, then as a backup: Miley Cyrus? She can sing! She can throw herself around a stage! Either would be a great choice. — R.H.
Rick Rubin (producer): Jack Black
Here is a little detail about how Rick Rubin reacted to getting a Sublime CD to listen to, via the Ringer: “As he drove off, he flung it out the window of his limo onto Sunset Boulevard, cracking it into pieces.” And you’re telling me you can’t see a heavily bearded Jack Black do the exact same thing, perhaps along with a maniacal laugh at the idea that this band could ever make it? Of course he could do those things! And if Black isn’t available for this brief, dismissive cameo, call up Brett Gelman, whose facial hair and smarm are practically unparalleled. — R.H.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story featured misidentified photos of Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson. The post has been updated with the correct images.