For better, worse, and middling, the lure of the music-legend biopic is a refrain that won’t quit in Hollywood. Sometimes, the impulse leads to enlightening outcomes, as with Ray and Walk the Line, giving us at least some sense of the import, the story arcs, and the core charisma and vulnerability of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, respectively — partly thanks to the bold lived-in performances of Jamie Foxx and Joaquin Phoenix.
Suddenly, as if in a conspiratorial rush, three recent films take on the lives — if in piecemeal, uneven fashion — of three more undisputedly iconic American musical legends, with I Saw the Light (re: Hank Williams, true country hero), Born to Be Blue (jazz trumpeter/singer/heartthrob Chet Baker), and the daring, if partially wayward, Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis portrait from director/cowriter/star Don Cheadle. That two are from the jazz world — although Miles’s legacy soars above Chet’s more specialized niche as a poetic romantic — comes as a pleasant surprise, an equal time equation for America’s greatest music (but we digress).
None of these films shy away from the substance-abusive subplots of these artists’ lives, and the more squalid, tabloid-y aspect of the Hank, Chet, and Miles trilogy is also a tale of booze, blow, and junk. Thankfully, the films — each in its own way and with its own degree of integrity — deal with the essential artistic and musical epiphanies, “hits,” and touchstones, and recognize the role of their self-destructive biochemical habits in the fragile makeup and narrative of their genius. (Yes, the over-used G-word does apply here, to varying extents).
Despite wavering qualities, all films are well worth seeing — and, importantly, hearing, given the care and love given to showcase the actual music these artists implanted in our collective ear, making them ripe candidates for biopicturing. With Hank, we get “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry,” and the gospel title song; with Miles, “So What,” “Nefertiti” (albeit during a scene of domestic abuse in the Davis house), and respectful scenes with Gil Evans, of the album Miles Ahead fame; and with Chet, the hypnotic croonery of “Born to Be Blue,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”
A potential pitfall of biopics, music or otherwise, is the challenge of telling the tale without getting lost in the deals, the diffusive sprawl of years, and the drudgery of chronology. These examples take on different time tacks: Hank’s story loses some of its steam and cohesion with its steady march through his meteoric career (although that only lasted six years, before his death, at 29, in 1953); Miles Ahead hopscotches from the murky dark years of his late-’70s disappearing act (with a disturbingly buffoonish stolen master tape angle) and flashbacks to his chameleonic career, restlessly morphing starting in the ’50s; and Born to Be Blue — overall, the best of the three, especially due to Ethan Hawke’s deep and necessarily hazy performance — wisely focuses on a transitional wannabe rehabbed period, between his first burst of fame and dubious achievement as “the world’s most famous junkie” and flinging himself into a blurry life in Europe.
These films contain pain, swagger, self-indulgence, moving music, and glimpses of the muse’s fickle silence and occasional majesty. Late in I Saw the Light, Hank sits down, uncomfortably and only half-willingly, with an N.Y.C. reporter. Before he chases the country star away with pestering inquiries into his drink, the singer touches on something of the timeless and ever-mysterious appeal of great music and musicians with access to the stuff of legend: “Everybody has a little darkness in them… I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home… They think I’m some kind of Red Cross.”
That’s why we love great music and are fascinating by those mercurial figures who bring it to life. The musical biopic form ain’t goin’ nowhere. No doubt, the storied life of late country great Merle Haggard, as played by (insert your suitable movie star here) will be gracing the multiplex screens before long. Hopefully, they will do the right thing, perhaps taking note of Walk the Line and Born to Be Blue.