Merle Haggard’s life would make a great country music biopic -- if only one could exist today
The death of Merle Haggard on Wednesday marked the end of an era, or at least a piece of an era. At a moment when singers were beginning to use music as a class-conscious weapon, Haggard wielded it with a sharp potency. Listening to “Okie From Muskogee” with the hindsight of 2016, one is struck how much, beneath its laid-back rhythms, Haggard is seething he is about the protest movement of the 1960s. It’s a song that’s angry about anger, really.
The Bakersfield Sound pioneer’s back story was also unique -- jailhouse escapes, violent love triangles, colorful blue-collar jobs (potato-truck driver?). In a modern era when many singers in country music (and other genres) merely wear the garb of the outlaw, Haggard genuinely was one, with a life as interesting as the songs.
“I Saw the Light,” which opened last weekend, is afflicted by a certain airlessness. Tom Hiddleston’s Hank Williams is convincing, but the movie never succeeds in being equally persuasive about its subject’s inner life -- let alone explain why Williams, a musical trailblazer and one of the greatest songwriters in history, really mattered. That robs the fallen-hero tale of much of its power. He’s just one more man about to be done in by his weaker impulses, and there’s little reason for us to care who he is.
A similar issue suffocated “Walk the Line,” which drained many of the class tensions and ironies that made Johnny Cash so intriguing and turned his life into the stuff of love story (and addiction) genericism. Cash’s embrace by convicts as he’s becoming a successful star is one of several paradoxes at the heart of the musician. But it’s hinted at only fleetingly.
A collection of noteworthy biopics and documentaries that explore the personal and professional lives of musicians.(Lionsgate; Universal Pictures; 20th Century Fox)
In “I Saw the Light,” Tom Hiddleston, best known for his role as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portrays country music pioneer Hank Williams, who died at age 29.(Sam Emerson / Sony Pictures Classics via AP)
“Miles Ahead” focuses on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ return from his late-1970s silent period. Don Cheadle directs himself in the title role. Previously titled “Kill the Trumpet Player,” the film is set to be released in 2016.(Pan African Film Festival )
“Straight Outta Compton” follows the meteoric rise and fall of the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A., which burst onto the music scene in the mid-1980s with a sound that reflected the violence and desperation of its gang-ridden surroundings.(Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)
Netflix’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” chronicles the life of singer and activist Nina Simone.(Sundance Institute)
“Amy” offers an intimate, unflinching gaze into the life of singer Amy Winehouse, exposing the perils of celebrity and addiction and how Winehouse fed off the two.(A24)
Director Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” offers an intimate look at the life of the late musician from his childhood in Aberdeen, Wash., through his rise to stardom with the grunge band Nirvana to his death in 1994.(Dora Handel / TNS)
Directed by producer-financier William Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” chronicles the complicated, eccentric personal saga of Beach Boys cofounder Brian Wilson. John Cusack and Paul Dano play Wilson in different periods of his tumultuous life, with Paul Giamatti as his tormentor, psychologist Eugene Landy.(Francois Duhamel / Roadside Attractions)
This observational documentary offers a final opportunity to witness the singer in lucid moments, with his artistry movingly intact. He moved into an Alzheimer’s treatment facility in March 2014, three years after filming began.(PCH Films)
This biopic examines the dramatic rise and fall of Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G., played by Jamal Woolard, right, with Dennis White. Domestic gross: $36,843,682.(Phil Caruso / 20th Century Fox)
Even when Hollywood attempts to make a movie about a fictional country star, as it did with “Crazy Heart” back in 2009 -- and has the creative license to go wherever it wants -- it falters. In the filmmakers’ hands, what could have been a story of a dissolute drinker with an ambivalent desire for redemption becomes one more story of a thinly drawn female character struggling to help a genius get back on his feet. (Incidentally, this could also be used to describe “I Saw the Light” and “Walk the Line.”)
Why is it so hard to make a good country biopic? Or, put another way, what is it about the genre that makes so many interesting people become uninteresting on the screen?
Some of this is clearly the result of the movie industry trying to understand a culture that’s foreign to it. Hollywood and Nashville have long been separated by more than just a couple thousand miles, and the differences have manifested in some of these movies, which feel like West Coast filmmakers, even those with Southern roots, are taking a view from afar.
And it’s hard to ignore the matter of the songs themselves; when your subject’s work itself is so cinematic, actually making a movie that tops--or competes with--it is never easy.
But another reason, I think, may have to do with the glow of nostalgia. When you’re making a movie about personalities that are of another era, you’re less likely to understand the complexities of the time, or at least more likely to hit notes everyone can understand -- alcoholism, the power of a good relationship. One reason “Straight Outta Compton” worked so well is because many of the people it was about are still vibrant today, and the issues the musicians faced are still relevant today. So the movie felt textured and real too.
Proximity to one’s subjects isn’t enough on its own to make for a great biopic, of course; there are plenty of bad biopics about recent figures. But it may help eliminate the more formulaic tics. Sure, an addiction/redemption arc is what makes these stories appealing to producers in the first place. But that’s a starting point, not the sum of the tale.
(See how “Amy”-- another movie about a thoroughly contemporary musical figure -- was able to go beyond a simple compulsion to drink and show more complex psychological and familial forces. Or just see how more sprawling country pieces with more than just love-and-substances on the mind -- like Robert Altman’s “Nashville” or, well, Callie Khouri’s “Nashville” -- achieve a greater level of drama.)
Josh Brolin recently revealed that he and Jessica Chastain have signed on to make a movie about George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Yet again, country icons with colorful lives. And yet again, one fears a kind of flatness.
Jones, Haggard, Williams and so many others lived colorful lives that encapsulated not just their own contradictions but the contradiction of modern America, and what makes it such an intriguing place. One only wishes for a movie that returns the favor.
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.