Tag Archives: musical biopics

Her Propers


by George Wolf

As cliched and formulaic as music biopics can get, they’ve always got a Get Out of Jail Free Card: the hits. They can turn a stale, overly safe narrative like Bohemian Rhapsody into an Oscar contender, and elevate a joyous risk-taker such as Rocketman into another exhilarating dimension.

Respect certainly has some legendary music on its side, but the sublime cast and intimate perspective are plenty valuable as well.

Is Aretha’s the single greatest voice popular music has ever known? She’s certainly in the team picture, which means Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson has a tough gig in bringing Ms. Franklin to life with more humanity than impersonation.

She’s fantastic. A powerhouse vocalist herself, Hudson alters her phrasing only slightly, wisely channeling the breadth of Franklin’s gift over an unnecessary impersonation. But make no mistake, when Hudson starts digging into the Queen’s songbook, there will be goosebumps.

Director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson – both TV vets making their jump to the big screen – seem cognizant of the tired formula so brilliantly skewered nearly fifteen years ago by Walk Hard. They keep Respect focused on a twenty-year period from ’52 to ’72, and the personal struggles that saw Aretha take control of her life and her music.

Aretha battles to step out from the shadow of her father Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), her husband/manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans) and record exec Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron), and Respect gives her story the feminist propers it deserves. Tommy keeps the grandness on the stage and in the studio, opting for an understated tone to the human drama that – one or two hiccups aside – gives it depth.

The finale takes us to Aretha’s live recording session for her landmark gospel album, and the film ends as both a celebration of a legend and an invitation to visit (or re-visit) the transcendent experience that is the 2018 documentary Amazing Grace.

Respect. Sock it to you.

Hellhound on My Trail


by George Wolf

Outlaw country musician Blaze Foley lived too hard and died too young, a life so steeped in cultish mystery that even the director of his biopic believed an urban legend about what led to Foley’s tragic death.

Ethan Hawke, who also co-wrote the film with Foley’s ex-wife Sybil Rosen, presents Blaze’s story with respectful grace and an observational tone that moves casually but cuts deeply. Seemingly drawing inspiration from frequent collaborator Richard Linklater (who has a cameo role in the film), Hawke’s directing style is unassuming and unhurried, mining resonance from small moments that define his subject.

It seems cosmically right that a virtual unknown singer-songwriter, Ben Dickey, plays Foley, who may be best known to mainstream country fans as the writer behind songs recorded by artists such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine.

Dickey, who was working as a chef when Hawke offered him the role, is a revelation. Though more physically imposing than the real Foley, Dickey reveals the demons that frequently bested Blaze, pushing him to sabotage his relationship with Sybil (Alia Shawkat-also stellar) as well as his chances at big-time music business success.

With music such a big part of the film, Hawke’s decision to present it in its live, raw glory reaps big dividends.

Dickey mimics Blaze’s phrasing, picking and rambling onstage persona to eerie perfection, getting an impressive assist from Charlie Sexton as fellow troubadour Townes Van Zandt. Sexton (who had an 80s hit with “Beats So Lonely,” has been Bob Dylan’s guitarist for years and appeared alongside Hawke in Boyhood) gives the film solid layers of reference as the drawling Van Zandt charms a radio DJ (Hawke) with stories of Blaze, the little-known legend.

From dreaming of stardom while riding in a truck bed, to antagonizing barroom audiences, to a visit with Blaze’s once-abusive, now senile father (Kris Kristofferson), sequence after sequence rings more organic and true than most found in music biopics.

It’s clear this a passion project for Hawke (and, of course, for Rosen), who is smart enough not to let that passion interfere with authenticity. Blaze gives Foley the re-birth he clearly earned – as a conflicted, damaged soul longing to be heard.



Long Gone Daddy

I Saw the Light

by Hope Madden

At one point in I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham’s biopic of legendary country performer Hank Williams, the singer tells us, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I show it to them and they don’t have to take it home.”

It’s a fascinating scene. Too bad it doesn’t describe the film we’re seeing.

The reliably talented Tom Hiddleston lost some pounds as well as his Brit accent to take on the role of the lanky Alabaman. While his performance is not perfect, it is quite good. Between the surprisingly effective singing and the occasionally haunted expression, Hiddleston brings Williams to charming if conflicted life.

Hiddleston is joined by the equally talented Elizabeth Olsen, and the two attempt to animate the volcanic relationship between Williams and wife Audrey. Their chemistry keeps the rocky pairing believable and fascinating, and Olsen’s spitfire performance shows fearlessness.

No, the problem with I Saw the Light is definitely not the cast. But make no mistake, there are serious problems here.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Williams unveils his most recent effort, the iconic Your Cheatin’ Heart. Heartbroken, ill, and spent, the singer whispers the final line and Abraham cuts to his wife Billie (Maddie Hasson). This might have been a powerful choice if we had spent any time with or been given any information about this particular wife and her allegedly cheatin’ heart.

Abraham (Flash of Genius), who adapted the nonfiction book by Colin Escott, meanders through the musical legend’s personal life while entirely neglecting his music. The film never feels like it is moving forward, offers no real context or reflection on Williams’s personal struggles, and is exasperatingly slight when showcasing his artistry.

Williams tells us in the film that when a country singer sings a sad song, you know that he knows sadness.

Man, I bet that’s true. Too bad I don’t hear his sad songs, nor do I see him battle sadness. I do see him drink, show up too drunk to perform, and marry several times. That may be the fodder for a country song or two, but a satisfying biopic on one of the most influential songwriters in modern music? Nope.