The “troubled genius” is usually a good target for a biopic. Filmmakers – and the resulting audience – get to revel in the things we know about that person from whatever it is they contributed to popular culture or society in general while at the same time getting to dig into the darker elements of their character. It actually serves a huge narrative purpose since too much overt positivity can come off as an uncritical puff piece as opposed to something that spans the range of human emotions, which helps audiences connect with the material.
Entering that genre this week is I Saw The Light, the story of country music legend Hank Williams. Tom Hiddleston plays Williams in a story that focuses on the singer’s short, incredible and tragic career. Williams of course produced some of country music’s most important foundational music but was, as many such artists are, troubled by his own personal demons that drove him to drugs and alcohol, leading to problems in his personal life as well as his professional one, with the singer ultimately dying at age 29 but with an incredible body of work behind him.
The first and only poster was concerned primarily with presenting Hiddleston as Williams. So he’s the only visual element on the one-sheet, shown in full garb and standing at a Grand Ole Opry microphone. At the top is a critical blurb comparing Hiddleston’s performance to that of Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, which is high praise indeed.
The first trailer starts off by introducing Hiddleston as Williams and continues to show the stations of the biopic formula. The first third is very hopeful as we hear and see about how talented Williams is and how he’s married a good woman and so on. But that all quickly falls apart as we see him descend further and further into alcohol, drugs, cheating on his wife and more irresponsible behavior. It’s clear Williams is no saint, though the movie seems to be trying to give him a redemption arc.
There’s barely a shot here that doesn’t have Hiddleston in it, so it’s clear (for obvious reasons) that he’s the big draw here. And most all the trailer features either shots of him singing or the sound of him singing in the background, so the marketers want to make sure everyone knows there’s plenty of music in this biopic. It’s very effecting and emotional, but it does come across as a pretty standard biopic in terms of structure.
Online and Social
The trailer plays when you pull up the official website but that’s just the tip of the iceberg on a fairly robust site.
After that the first section is “About” where you can read a Synopsis of the story, a statement from director Marc Abraham and then another piece that’s basically an interview with Abraham. In both of the latter he talks about what drew him to the story and what he’s trying to do by telling it.
I love the next section, “Characters,” because it works to give us some information about the real people being portrayed in the movie, including using images of those people, not the actors who are playing them. There’s a ton of good background here, something that continues in the “Timeline” section. There you’ll find an outline of the major events of Williams’ career, at least (presumably) those that portrayed in the movie.
You get *very* in-depth career histories on the major players in front of the camera in the “Cast” section and similarly robust looks at those behind the camera in “Filmmakers.”
There are 32 images in the “Film Gallery,” including mostly official stills with a few behind-the-scenes shots mixed in. The “Historical Gallery” has a half-dozen shots of the real-life Williams and his wives and band.
“The World of Hank Williams” takes you to various official sites related to Williams, from his estate’s page to that of the museum in his honor and more. Finally, “Reviews” has a few short snippets from early reviews of the movie.
The Facebook page for the movie is filled with countdown images, links to various press stories and images and other media to keep the promotional train humming. Of particular note are all the images that feature other artists’ quotes about the influence Williams had on them specifically or the industry as a whole. It seems clearly targeted at reaching country music fans and establishing the credentials for the movie as being fitting of the legend. There wasn’t a Twitter page for the movie so it just borrowed space on the /SonyClassics feed.
Advertising and Cross-Promotion
There was at least a little bit of TV advertising done with spots like this one running that don’t so much lay out the story but try to show off the man at the center of it. So they’re not concerned with building toward something dramatic as much as they are about presenting a flawed character and asking the audience to come along for the ride. That spot also specifically calls out that the movie is not just opening in L.A. and New York but also Nashville, which makes a ton of sense.
I’m sure there was at least a bit of online advertising done and the Facebook page shows off some outdoor billboards that were placed presumably in key markets where the movie is opening so it seems to have gotten at least decent paid support.
Media and Publicity
While there was plenty of buzz about the movie ahead of time things really took off when a clip was released via Hiddleston’s Twitter account showing him as Williams recording a tune. That came out just before the movie’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival, which garnered mixed reviews, with some critics saying it was great and might be an awards contender while others said it was kind of shockingly bad.
After the movie’s premiere in Nashville, Hiddleston opted to jump on stage at a local club and perform a few songs as Williams.
In an interview closer to release Hiddleston talked about how he got himself ready for the role, particularly in how he spent time getting to know and connecting with the songs Williams wrote so he could convey something personal with his performance. Prep work was a theme here as well, as he talked about one of the first times he was coaxed up on stage as part of his training. Olsen’s preparation was also discussed in an interview with her.
The movie’s impending release also seems to have opened up a new chance to reevaluate and appreciate Williams’ contributions to music, as this story dives back into his history and impact as well as how he continues to influence country music today.
Hiddleston is a hot actor right now, thanks largely to his ability to do more with the Loki character in the Marvel movies than what was on the page and other recent turns. So the campaign here focuses on him with the hopes that at least some of his new fans will turn out and see what he can do outside of that role. There’s also an obvious appeal being made to country music fans as a whole, trading on Williams’ continued relevance to that genre with direct messages right to that group, which makes a lot of sense from a subject-matter point of view.
Beyond that, the campaign sells a movie that doesn’t sugarcoat some of the problems Williams went through in his short but prolific life. Sure, it still presents him as a man who was heralded as a genius both while and after he was alive, but the marketing shows that the ways he fell short of being someone to truly look up to and idolize, at least personally. Williams may be a relatively obscure figure – he doesn’t have the broad cultural awareness of someone like Johnny Cash – so the challenge is to make the movie, through the campaign, relevant to the bigger audience, a bar I’m not completely sure is cleared here. But for those who enjoy a good biopic or those who *are* hip to Williams’ role in music, there’s a lot to latch onto here.