I Saw the Light

I SAW THE LIGHT, bio­graph­i­cal drama, rated R, Re­gal DeVar­gas, 2 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

We now have our Hank Wil­liams biopic for this gen­er­a­tion. And it is dead in the back seat.

It’s not re­ally the fault of Tom Hid­dle­ston, the fine English ac­tor who you might re­mem­ber from Jim Jar­musch’s vampire gem Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), or more likely as Scott Fitzger­ald in Woody Allen’s

Mid­night in Paris (2011), but most likely as Loki in the Thor movies. Hid­dle­ston bends his lanky frame into Wil­liams’ spina bi­fida-tor­tured body and his dul­cet Bri­tish tones into some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing Hank’s Alabama twang. Hid­dle­ston does his own singing of Wil­liams’ tunes, and does it rea­son­ably well. But rea­son­ably well falls painfully short of the sim­ple magic that made Hank Wil­liams one of the great singer-song­writ­ers of the last cen­tury.

Wil­liams’ life flamed out early, when he was found dead of heart fail­ure in the back seat of his pow­derblue 1952 Cadil­lac, in which he was trav­el­ing through a snow­storm to a New Year’s Day con­cert in Can­ton, Ohio. He was twenty-nine years old, and had been a star for about five years. But short as it was, his ca­reer pro­duced a wealth of in­deli­ble mu­sic, songs like “I’m So Lone­some I Could Cry,” “Hey, Good-Lookin’,” “Jam­bal­aya,” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” to name just a few of his 11 chart-top­ping sin­gles and 35 Top 10 coun­try hits.

That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour movie, so you start grow­ing im­pa­tient when the movie daw­dles in get­ting to the mu­sic, af­ter open­ing with a dreamy, dirge-like ren­di­tion of “Cold, Cold Heart” that Hank seems to be per­form­ing sit­ting on a stool in a heav­enly cabaret bathed in cin­e­matog­ra­pher Dante Spinotti’s soft, gauzy light­ing.

Af­ter that, we plunge into the twenty-one-year-old Hank (a stretch for the thirty- five-year- old Hid­dle­ston) and his bride Au­drey (El­iz­a­beth Olsen) get­ting hitched be­fore a jus­tice of the peace at an Alabama gas sta­tion. As the story slogs along, some mu­sic does creep in, but the brunt of the telling by writer/di­rec­tor Marc Abraham gets bogged down in dreary scenes of al­co­holism, mar­i­tal bick­er­ing, par­ty­ing, wom­an­iz­ing, di­vorce pa­pers, and con­trac­tual squab­bles. Au­drey never gets much of a chance to show a lov­able side, and the great Cherry Jones gets marginal­ized in a few tan­gen­tial scenes as the singer’s mother.

The movie touches on a num­ber of bio­graph­i­cal in­ci­dents, in­clud­ing var­i­ous fir­ings, missed dates, and record­ing ses­sions, along with Wil­liams’ early ap­pear­ances on t he step­ping- stone ra­dio show Louisiana Hayride, and then his big-league break­through into the Grand Ole Opry. But none of it feels like much fun. True, Wil­liams sang a lot about heart­break, but there was also a joy in per­form­ing that con­nected him with his au­di­ences, and that joy sel­dom makes it­self felt on­screen. In­stead, there seems to be an in­creas­ing con­tempt for au­di­ences, col­leagues, con­certs, and the mu­sic it­self as Wil­liams sinks deeper into al­co­hol and drugs. Coun­try mu­sic ti­tan and friend Roy Acuff is said to have warned him when he was spi­ral­ing out of con­trol, “You’ve got a mil­lion-dol­lar ta­lent, son, but a ten-cent brain.”

An ear­lier biopic of Wil­liams, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), in­cluded a scene that, while prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal, cap­tured a piece of Wil­liams lore that il­lus­trates his cre­ative ge­nius. Hank (played by Ge­orge Hamil­ton) and Au­drey go to see Fred Rose (Acuff’s pub­lish­ing part­ner) in his of­fice. Rose is im­pressed with the songs, but skep­ti­cal that this kid wrote them. He tells Wil­liams to write a song on the spot, and he comes up with “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You).” The ac­tual leg­end in­volves a dif­fer­ent song, but the im­pact is the same: Mu­sic poured out of the kid like fresh coun­try wa­ter.

You can’t judge a movie by what’s not there, but it must be held ac­count­able for what is, and the cold, cold heart of this bio doesn’t shine much of a light on the en­dur­ing leg­end that is Hank Wil­liams. It fades out on his fi­nal ride down the lost high­way to Can­ton, but it does take us inside the con­cert hall when the an­nounce­ment is made that Wil­liams is dead. As ac­tu­ally hap­pened, the per­form­ers on­stage and the con­cert au­di­ence join in a spon­ta­neous singing of “I Saw the Light.” It ought to be a spine-tin­gling mo­ment, but the down­beat jour­ney to reach this point has killed the mo­men­tum.

On a visit to New York City mid-movie, Wil­liams sub­mits, a bit un­gra­ciously, to an in­ter­view with a jour­nal­ist, who asks him what he feels his mu­sic has to of­fer his fans. “Ev­ery­one has a lit­tle dark­ness in them,” Wil­liams says. “I show it to them, and then they don’t have to take it home.” That may be the best we can hope for from this trip down Hank Wil­liams’ mem­ory lane. — Jonathan Richards

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Hey, good lookin’: El­iz­a­beth Olsen and Tom Hid­dle­ston

Bradley Whit­ford and Tom Hid­dle­ston

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