Respectable but hard to access emotionally, Joe Hill is a straightforward biopic about the iconic activist/songwriter who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. in 1902 and was executed in 1915 on murder chargers that some consider highly questionable. Circa 1971, Hill’s name would have been familiar to the hippie crowd because folksinger Joan Baez performed the tribute song “Joe Hill” at Woodstock, and her rendering was included in the 1970 documentary about that event. (A studio version of Baez’s interpretation appears in this film.) By any measure, the real Joe Hill led a life worth examining. The wannabe composer endured poverty in New York City’s immigrant slums before becoming a hobo. After developing sensitivity to the oppression of the underclass, he began using his talent to rally workers through politically charged songs. Eventually, Hill become synonymous with the International Workers of the World, though his activism led to beatings and incarcerations.
The movie depicts Hill’s adventures in a linear fashion, with Swedish actor Thommy Berggren bringing an amiably steely quality to the title role. Some early scenes work quite well, as when Hill bonds with a larcenous street urchin. Yet Swedish writer-director Bo Widerberg never pulls the viewer fully into Hill’s mind, so many of the character’s actions seem arbitrary. As a result, the movie doesn’t flow as well as it should. Joe Hill feels like a collection of mildly interesting episodes instead of a propulsive narrative, which is a shame. Sequences of Hill clashing with violent authorities are pungent, and whenever Widerberg allows humor to enter the mix, Joe Hill sparks to life. In one scene, for instance, Hill dines at a posh restaurant, ordering seemingly everything on the menu, then concludes the meal by rolling up his sleeves and asking for directions to the kitchen, implying his intention to pay his bill by washing dishes.
And it’s not as if Widerberg fails to get the serious stuff right, because the final stretch of the picture, dramatizing Hill’s time in prison, is affecting. Less impressive is the preceding sequence, during which Hill acts as his own attorney while on trial for murder, as happened in real life; in Widerberg’s telling, Hill improbably comes across as a master litigator who only loses because the deck is stacked against him. Portraying a noble historical figure as a superhero surrounded by conspirators is rarely the right way to demonstrate artistic credibility. And while it’s not entirely fair to malign Joe Hill as a one-dimensional hagiography, the movie invites such criticism by leaving way too many gaps in terms of character development.
Joe Hill: FUNKY