USA TODAY US Edition
New biopics are making beautiful music
Music legends’ lives often are as iconic as their tunes.
The box office success of N.W.A-centered drama Straight
Outta Compton proved there’s a hunger for mash-ups of movies and music, and two new biopics of music personalities have premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“We all love music documentaries and biopics because we love music,” says Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, who portrays jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in writer/ director Robert Budreau’s Born
to be Blue. “Music is the art that every other art imitates. And we love to be inside music: What was he thinking when he played that song? Why did he write that song? Why did she go so high on that note?”
With I Saw the Light (in theaters Nov. 27), which stars Tom Hiddleston as country singer Hank Williams, Marc Abraham wanted to do a portrait of an artist as a young man. The writer/ director narrows in on 1947 to 1953, when Williams divorced his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), got another woman pregnant, married a 19-year-old, struggled with prescription drugs and alcohol, wrote Your Cheatin’ Heart while suffering crippling back pain from spina bifida, and died in the backseat of a car at age 29.
Hiddleton does all his own singing and guitar-playing for the role, and the British actor perfected his version of the Alabama crooner while working with musician Rodney Crowell.
“His instruction to me was to connect to the songs first and foremost as myself,” Hiddleston told the crowd at a post-screening Q&A Saturday. “What does it mean to say I’m so lonesome I could cry? What does it mean to say in a song why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart? The sincerity and honesty of those lyrics was something I had to find.”
Similarly, Hawke learned how to play trumpet for Born to be
Blue, which is seeking a distributor at the festival. It focuses on Baker’s life in the late 1960s as he works to fix his embouchure and play again after his teeth are knocked out in an attack, with slipping back into his heroin habit a constant danger.
“There’s something hypnotizing about Chet,” Hawke says. “He was a difficult person to like, but there’s something so lonely in his playing and singing that moved me. ... It seemed like what he was struggling for in music was something I always struggle for in acting.”
One brutal scene shows Baker trying to play in a bathtub after mouth surgery, a cigarette flailing in the fingers he’s using to work his valves as blood streams out of his mouth.
“He’s a glutton, but also he just didn’t want to live without playing. Playing ’s the only thing he liked,” Hawke says. “You hurt for Chet. He’s his own worst enemy, but you can understand him.”