Miles, Chet and Hank, reimagined
Sony Pictures Classics
March 17, 2016 6:46 AM EDT

Terrible people often make gorgeous music, a quandary when we want to believe that true beauty shines from within. Shouldn’t artists who spin out transcendent sounds also be nice to their wives, their children, their colleagues?

But the things that make human beings shine are rarely all pretty or easy to parse, as three current–if disparate–not-really-biopics show. In Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue, Ethan Hawke plays West Coast jazz heartthrob and junkie Chet Baker, though Budreau isn’t even pretending to tell Baker’s real story. Instead, he imagines what Baker’s life might have been like if, in 1966, he’d gotten clean, fallen in love and switched course. In Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, Miles Ahead, Cheadle plays an even cooler, wilder trumpet superstar, Miles Davis, but again, this is no straight-ahead biography. Instead, Cheadle has fashioned a wiggy caper set after 1975, when an exhausted, ailing Miles retreated for years from the public eye. Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light skips over to a neighboring genre, country music: Tom Hiddleston plays Hank Williams, whose rocky rise to the Grand Ole Opry, in 1949, was followed by plummeting decline. Williams died less than four years later, at age 29, his heart worn out from hard drinking and the painkiller cocktails he took for his chronic spinal pain.

The overly complex Miles Ahead is the most ambitious and least successful of these pictures, yet Cheadle’s Miles strikes a cosmically recognizable note. Critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that his 9-year-old daughter could identify Miles immediately from his tone: “It sounds like a little boy who’s been locked out and wants to get in.” We rarely think of growly, irascible Miles as being vulnerable, but like that tiny Tynan, Cheadle sees through the posturing, without sanitizing or demystifying the man.

If you closed your eyes and dreamed a dream of Chet Baker–conjuring a guy as troubled as the real man was, only not so much of an unholy jerk–he would come wafting in on a cloud, looking just like Ethan Hawke. For a sense of the real Baker, in all his toothless, selfish, wizened majesty, see Bruce Weber’s extraordinary 1988 doc Let’s Get Lost–but Hawke’s performance is something different, duskily gorgeous by itself. This Baker wants to quit junk for the love of a good woman (played with gentle flintiness by Carmen Ejogo). In real life, Baker was too in thrall to the stuff to ditch it for long, least of all for a skirt. Yet Hawke makes this sweeter, gentler Baker persuasive in a schoolgirl-diary way–he’s exactly what we want to believe in when we lie back in the embrace of the real Baker’s trumpet sound, soft and strong as a willow’s bough, or revel in his feathery crooning. (Hawke does his own singing–it’s infused with a whispery urgency.) Hawke as Baker, his forehead creased with a permaworry wrinkle, is a reminder that ingrained unhappiness can sometimes spur fine-grained artistry–a thing that lasts long after even the most stunning cheekbones in the world have crumbled to dust.

I Saw the Light, the one true biopic here, mostly hews to the facts, assaying Williams’ short, blazing career, his roving eye and his alcoholism. The movie is a snooze, but see it just for the magnificent Hiddleston, who honors Williams’ greatness but also wriggles beyond it: skinny as a rake and rakish as Casanova, he reclaims Williams’ vast sex appeal. He also channels, almost too well, Williams’ loneliest, most sunless moments. Thrumming his guitar to “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” one of Williams’ final songs, Hiddleston is translucent as a wraith, a man already as good as dead. If you need proof of the suffering of a man who could write lyrics like “The moon just went behind the clouds/To hide its face and cry”–spare, like a shard of Japanese verse, and giving clear shape to an intensely private pain–it’s all there in Hiddleston’s haunted, haunting face.

This appears in the March 28, 2016 issue of TIME.

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