In “I Saw the Light”, Tom Hiddleston not only looks uncannily like the legendary country crooner Hank Williams, but he does a brilliant job of imitating the singer’s twanging tenor as well. The film’s production values impeccably capture the Grand Ole Opry as well as the backwoods burgs of the rural south in the early fifties. And the soundtrack is filled with Williams’ tremendous songs. So why, after all that, is the movie still just so…so-so? Quite simply, “I Saw the Light” fails to illuminate the art of its artist. The film never really gets ahold of how the man wrote and sang songs that mattered so much.
Williams career was short. He died after just six years as a nationally recognized recording artist. Yet in that short time, Williams recorded 31 singles and 23 of them placed in the Billboard Top 10. Thirty of them placed in the Country Billboard’s Top 10. And seven of them were number one hits. Country Music Television ranks him as the second all-time greatest country artist ever, just behind the recently deceased Merle Haggard. So what was it that made this man so important to the music industry? The movie doesn’t tackle those questions. Instead, it relies on an episodic story that paints him as a ne’er-do-well who drinks too much, sleeps around too much, and treats everyone poorly way too much of the time.
Where is the artist Williams, the man who wrote such songs of pain, adultery, sexuality and redemption that rocked the USA music scene those six years? Perhaps the filmmakers thought that his artistic process in creating his music would be too dull, but shouldn’t that be the core of the story of a musical legend? If studio execs think that audiences will be bored to tears by such things, they should be reminded of how everyone and their brother these days loves all the behind-the-scenes tidbits whether they’re DVD extras, easter eggs, or reality shows that cover the process of creating everything from movie makeup to couture fashion. What goes into making art “art” has become a cottage industry throughout the media. So why are movie musician biopics leaving out so much of the process?
It’s especially critical to understanding an artist like Hank Williams who wrote and sang his songs at a time when most artists were merely interpreting the songs of professional songwriters. But the movie seems uninterested in getting inside his head. We never see him working out rhymes or sharing his creations with his band. If one watching the film didn’t know how crucial a player Williams was to the history of 20th century music, they would likely come away from this movie with the impression that he was merely another spoiled celebrity who couldn’t handle fame.
Most of the biopics about musical stars fail to illuminate the music just as egregiously, though there are some rare surprises that buck the trend. Last year’s brilliant study of what made Brian Wilson tick was shown thoroughly in “Love & Mercy.” How he came up with the Beach Boys sound and instrumentation is given oodles of screen time and it’s utterly fascinating to watch. And Paul Dano’s masterful performance truly helps us understand the vision of the man as he works out every detail with the studio musicians on bringing his revolutionary “God Only Knows” tune to life. But generally, musical biopics don’t spend nearly enough time on all the inspiration or perspiration.
As good as Jamie Foxx was in his Oscar-winning performance in 2004’s “Ray”, little is shown of how Ray Charles found his voice as an artist and then used it to add new dimensions to all kinds of genres throughout his career. Instead, most of the drama of the movie centers around his problems with infidelity. In Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” (1991), the director brilliantly captures the druggy mix of fame and debauchery that became Jim Morrison’s modus operandi, and Val Kilmer’s performance is a perfect vessel for illuminating it, but after an initial sequence that shows how the Doors created “Light My Fire”, we never again view that much attention paid to the music. That’s especially unfortunate as Ray Manzarek’s electric piano sound not only helped define the Doors, but in large part, his orchestrations informed the musical style of 60’s rock as well. Where was that story?
Two other musical biopics currently at play in cinemas should tell more about the musical genius of their artists too but likewise concentrate more on the tortured artist part. Ethan Hawke gives a wonderfully accomplished and moody performance as jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in “Born to be Blue”, and Don Cheadle captures the volatility as well as the cool of Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead,” but how they created their distinctive music isn’t give as much screen time as the problems that plagued their lives. Granted, this is the choice the filmmakers made, and the troubles in their subjects’ lives are part of their story and worthy of dramatization, but it’s another example of how movies about musicians don’t delve all that deeply into how the artists make their art.
Granted, most audiences probably don’t want to see movies about how people work, but if they’re willing to watch police procedurals on the big and small screen where every detail of detective work is dramatized, why can’t art get the same consideration? “I Saw the Light” is so much more interested in focusing on Williams’ addictive personality than it is in painting a portrait of how he created the music that touched so many. The movie would be much better if it addressed more of the musical joy instead of all the home life pain.
One of the best examples of how to do a musical biopic correctly was 1984’s “Amadeus.” It too showcased a lot of the up’s and down’s of Wolfgang Mozart’s short but brilliant time on earth, but the film also took great pains to show just how he twisted the rules of conventional music to create his master works. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film demonstrates his creative process when he changes a few chords of a competitor’s hack song to make it more unexpected and much more interesting. A key change and some minor musical notes make all the difference and it’s a fun and informative way of dramatizing Mozart’s musical genius.
Music is intrinsically interesting and audiences continue to be fascinated by how songs are put together as the behemoth success of shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” demonstrate. They are all about showing how the artist chooses to interpret a song and put it together for performance. Hollywood’s screenwriters, directors and executives who plan on bringing a musician’s life story to the big screen should realize the same, and that it’s an artist’s music that makes them worthy of a biopic in the first place. Unfortunately, too many filmmakers would rather strike those dissonant chords and little else.