I Saw the Light
I SAW THE LIGHT, biographical drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 2 chiles
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
Hey, good lookin’: Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston
Bradley Whitford and Tom Hiddleston