Music biopics rule at Toronto film fest

Actor Tom Hiddleston sings all the songs in Hank Williams’ biopic, I Saw The Light.
Actor Tom Hiddleston sings all the songs in Hank Williams’ biopic, I Saw The Light. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TORONTO, CANADA • Country music star Hank Williams and jazz trumpeter Chet Baker biopics, as well as a new Keith Richards documentary, headlined at the Toronto film festival on Sunday.

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, a whopping eight music biopics and documentaries were scheduled for release in Toronto this week.

A ninth, with footage of Aretha Franklin's 1972 concert in a Los Angeles church, was planned, but it was yanked at the last minute, due to an ongoing legal fight between producers and the singer.

Walk The Line premiered here in 2005 before going on to earn nearly US$190 million at the box office and Reese Witherspoon an Oscar for her performance as June Carter.

In I Saw The Light, about Hank Williams, who died at age 29 after releasing 33 hit singles, actor Tom Hiddleston sang every note.

Most of the songs, including I Saw The Light and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, are considered American standards today and have been recorded by pop, rock and country artists alike.

The film chronicles the singer's life from his 1944 marriage to Audrey Williams, played by Elizabeth Olsen, to his tragic death on New Year's Day in 1953.

It tells the story of a tormented artist who found inspiration in his own woes and revolutionised country music with his haunting voice and original songs, while refusing to hide his alcoholism and addiction to painkillers behind the wholesome facade of Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry stage and radio show.

"Hank was in some ways probably the first rock star. It's hard to question that," said director Marc Abraham.

Ethan Hawke, meanwhile, gives one of his best-ever performances in a fictionalised version of Baker's life in Born To Be Blue.

The film, directed by Canadian Robert Budreau, imagines that Baker had starred in his own biopic, in an attempt to capture the nature of jazz improvisation.

In the early 1960s, while Baker was imprisoned on drug convictions in Italy, producer Dino de Laurentiis approached him to star in a movie as himself.

But it never materialised.

Other elements in the film, such as losing his teeth in a mugging, are true. But there was never a Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo, who plays his love interest in both the film and the film within a film.

All of this may confuse jazz purists, but Budreau said he remained "true to the spirit of the character and times, rather than being dogged by facts that were often disputed by Baker himself".

Hawke said: "For me, it's not how Chet was, but how we're imagining him to be."

Other films at the festival include documentaries The Idol, about Arab Idol winner and Gazan wedding singer Mohammad Assaf, who became a worldwide sensation.

Janis: Little Girl Blue tells the tale of late rock legend Janis Joplin, while two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple's Miss Sharon Jones! gives its look on the R&B queen.

Netflix also cast Richards in a film about himself, presented in a new festival programme dedicated to television.

"I'm not getting old, I'm evolving," the Rolling Stones guitarist says in Keith Richards: Under The Influence, which follows him on the road during the creation of his solo album Crosseyed Heart.

Director Morgan Neville also premiered another film, The Music Of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble, at the festival this week.

The cellist gave a live performance before the screening.

The Reflektor Tapes follows Canadian band Arcade Fire as they complete their chart-topping 2013 album Reflektor and go on tour.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Music biopics rule at Toronto film fest'. Print Edition | Subscribe