Biopic casts lit­tle ‘Light’ on Wil­liams

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - GO MOVIES SEE - By John Bei­fuss

As Hank Wil­liams, Tom Hid­dle­ston per­forms his own vo­cals in “I Saw the Light,” the new movie bi­og­ra­phy of the coun­try mu­sic singer and com­poser whose hits in­cluded “Lovesick Blues,” “I’m So Lone­some I Could Cry” and the ret­ro­spec­tively eerie “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” re­leased two months be­fore Wil­liams’ New Year’s Day 1953 death at the age of 29.

No doubt Hid­dle­ston and wri­ter­di­rec­tor Marc Abraham de­cided that al­low­ing the ac­tor to do his own singing would cre­ate an im­me­di­acy and “au­then­tic­ity” that would be lost with lip-sync­ing. The re­sult, how­ever, is un­for­tu­nate. The Hank Wil­liams who ap­pears in “I Saw the Light” does not pos­sess one of the most des­per­ate and haunting voices in the his­tory of recorded sound; he is an ad­e­quate singer, at best. Hid­dle­ston’s work ethic is ad­mirable (the ac­tor spent weeks work­ing with the film’s mu­sic pro­ducer, coun­try singer Rod­ney Crow­ell), but the ef­fect is akin to al­low­ing an ac­tor in a Pi­casso biopic to paint his own copy of “Guer­nica.” It just ain’t the same.

Other choices also are puz­zling. The movie opens with an artsy shot of Hid­dle­ston as Hank sit­ting on a stool, with­out his gui­tar, il­lu­mi­nated by an over­head spot­light while croon­ing an a capella “Cold, Cold Heart”; even­tu­ally a har­mo­nium or per­haps an ac­cor­dion joins in. Is this sup­posed to be Hank in heaven? Is it Hank in an eter­nal limbo of lone­some­ness? What­ever; the glossy fash­ion-mag­a­zine or tele­vi­sion per­fume ad vibe is en­tirely at odds with the econ­omy of ges­ture, lack of pre­tense and ruth­less hon­esty that char­ac­ter­ize the Wil­liams es­thetic. (The un­likely cin­e­matog­ra­pher is the great Dante Spinotti, long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor with di­rec­tor Michael Mann on such chic films as “Man­hunter” and “Heat.”)

Mu­sic is­sues aside, Hid­dle­ston — the Bri­tish ac­tor prob­a­bly best­known for his por­trayal of the trick­ster Norse god, Loki, in sev­eral Mar­vel Comics movies — is a con­vinc­ing Wil­liams, and his

Hank-es­que raw­boned rangi­ness makes an in­ter­est­ing con­trast to the ro­bust cur­va­ceous­ness of El­iz­a­beth Olsen, cast as Hank’s first wife, Au­drey, whose de­sire to be a singing star in her own right is a source of con­stant con­flict.

The per­former who makes the big­gest im­pres­sion, how­ever, is Cherry Jones as Hank’s stolid mother, Lil­lie, who re­sents the in­flu­ence of other women on her strange, way­ward son. “I know I birthed you, Hank, I was there,” Lil­lie com­ments. “But where you came from …”

“I Saw the Light” fol­lows Hank through var­i­ous emo­tional episodes, ca­reer mile­stones and ro­man­tic in­fat­u­a­tions. We see Hank dur­ing his early ra­dio days with his band, the Drift­ing Cow­boys, and dur­ing his main­stream star­dom at the Grand Ole Opry (for­mer Memphian Jeff Pope ap­pears, briefly, as coun­try singer Red Foley). We watch Hank pop pills, drink to ex­cess and oth­er­wise demon­strate he is “a pro­fes­sional at mak­ing a mess of things.” The act­ing is fine, the pe­riod pro­duc­tion de­sign is ad­mirable, but the nar­ra­tive lacks drive and the movie fails to com­mu­ni­cate the pas­sion that must have mo­ti­vated its cre­ation. Per­haps Abraham (a veteran pro­ducer whose cred­its in­clude “Chil­dren of Men”) sensed some­thing was miss­ing; he oc­ca­sion­ally breaks the ac­tion with fake “doc­u­men­tary” in­ter­views and grainy faux home movie footage that only call at­ten­tion to the fact that we are watch­ing ac­tors in staged set­tings.

The movie’s most con­spic­u­ous fail­ure is its rel­a­tive inat­ten­tion to Hank’s song­writ­ing. Ad­mit­tedly, con­vey­ing this as­pect of Wil­liams’ ge­nius in movie terms is a daunt­ing chal­lenge, but even “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” an of­ten fan­ci­ful 1964 Wil­liams biopic that cast for­mer Memphian Ge­orge Hamil­ton as the coun­try singer, took pains to show how the young Hank was in­spired by Alabama blues mu­si­cian Ru­fus Payne. “I write what I write and I sing what I sing ’cause that’s what I do,” Wil­liams says in “I Saw the Light.” “Ain’t much choice, re­ally.” If you want more than that, you may want to read “Hank Wil­liams: The Bi­og­ra­phy” by Colin Es­cott, the 1994 book that is this movie’s cred­ited source of in­spi­ra­tion. Althea (Not rated, 83 min.) This year’s “South­ern Cir­cuit Tour of In­de­pen­dent Film­mak­ers” se­ries con­cludes with di­rec­tor Rex Miller’s doc­u­men­tary about Althea Gib­son, the Har­lem-raised ath­lete who be­came the un­likely queen of the highly seg­re­gated ten­nis world in the 1950s. Miller will be present, to host the screen­ing and an­swer ques­tions af­ter­ward. 7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Hal­lo­ran Cen­tre for Per­form­ing Arts & Ed­u­ca­tion, 225 S. Main St. Tick­ets: $10. Visit or­pheum-mem­phis. com. Em­brace of the Ser­pent (Not rated, 125 min.) An Ama­zo­nian shaman takes Euro­pean ex­plor­ers through the jun­gle in this ad­ven­ture film from Colom­bia, nom­i­nated this year for the Os­car for Best For­eign Lan­guage Film. 7 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Mem­phis Brooks Mu­seum of Art. Tick­ets: $9, or $5 for stu­dents and mu­seum mem­bers. Visit brooksmu­seum.org.

The G.I. Film Festival Cin­e­matic Sa­lute (Not rated, 100 min.) Doc­u­men­taries that show­case “the war­rior spirit,” in­clud­ing “Climb” and “The Real In­glo­ri­ous Bas­tards,” are fea­tured in this mini-film­fest. 7 p.m. Thurs­day, Par­adiso. Tick­ets: $16. Visit malco.com. Hard­core Henry: The Ul­ti­mate Fan Ex­pe­ri­ence (Not rated, 120 min.) This pre­view screen­ing of the vi­o­lent first-per­son-point-ofview ad­ven­ture film con­cludes with a live-via-satel­lite ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with di­rec­tor Ilya Naishuller and star Sharlto Co­p­ley. A “pre­quel” comic book comes with the ticket price. 7 p.m. Thurs­day, Par­adiso. Tick­ets: $22. Visit malco.com. Jour­ney to Space 3D (Not rated, 45 min.) Ex­pe­ri­ence space flight his­tory and the space shut­tle pro­gram. Through Nov. 11, CTI 3D Giant The­ater, Mem­phis Pink Palace Mu­seum, 3050 Cen­tral Ave. Tick­ets: $9 adult (13-59), $8 seniors (60+), $7 chil­dren (3-12). Call 901-636-2362 for show­times, tick­ets and reser­va­tions. The Leg­endary Giulia and Other Mir­a­cles (Not rated, 115 min.) The sixth “Ital­ian Film Festival USA” be­gins with this 2015 com­edy writ­ten and di­rected by its star, Edoardo Leo. Win­ner of an Ital­ian Os­car for Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor, the film chron­i­cles the mis­ad­ven­tures of a trio of friends whose tourism busi­ness runs afoul of the Ital­ian crime syn­di­cate. 7 p.m. Tues­day, Univer­sity Cen­ter Theatre, Univer­sity of Mem­phis. Ad­mis­sion: free. Visit ital­ian­film­fests.org/mem­phis. Liv­ing in the Age of Air­planes 2D (Not rated, 45 min.) Ex­pe­ri­ence the age of flight and its im­pact upon com­merce and cul­ture. Through April 30, CTI 3D Giant The­ater, Mem­phis Pink Palace Mu­seum, 3050 Cen­tral Ave. Tick­ets: $9 adult (13-59), $8 seniors (60+), $7 chil­dren (3-12). Call 901-636-2362 for show­times, tick­ets and reser­va­tions. The Metropoli­tan Opera: Madama But­ter­fly (Not rated, 221 min.) Puc­cini’s Ja­pan-set clas­sic, in a pro­duc­tion de­signed by the late Anthony Minghella and filmed live in New York. 11:55 a.m. Satur­day and 6:30 p.m. Wed­nes­day, Par­adiso. Tick­ets: $21. Visit malco. com. Na­tional Parks Ad­ven­ture 3D (Not rated, 45 min.) Robert Red­ford nar­rates this ul­ti­mate off-trail ad­ven­ture into the na­tion’s great out­doors and un­tamed wilder­ness. Filmed in more than 30 na­tional parks across the coun­try, movie fea­tures moun­taineer Con­rad Anker, ad­ven­ture pho­tog­ra­pher Max Lowe and artist Rachel Pohl hik­ing, climb­ing and ex­plor­ing their way across Amer­ica. Through April 30, CTI 3D Giant The­ater, Mem­phis Pink Palace Mu­seum, 3050 Cen­tral Ave. Tick­ets: $9 adult (13-59), $8 seniors (60+), $7 chil­dren (3-12). Call 901-636-2362 for show­times, tick­ets and reser­va­tions. Pre­his­toric Planet: Walk­ing with Dinosaurs 3D (Not rated, 45 min.) Ex­pe­ri­ence a year in the life of dinosaurs. Through April 30, CTI 3D Giant The­ater, Mem­phis Pink Palace Mu­seum, 3050 Cen­tral Ave. Tick­ets: $9 adult (13-59), $8 seniors (60+), $7 chil­dren (3-12). Call 901-636-2362 for show­times, tick­ets and reser­va­tions. Toy Story (G, 81 min.) The 1995 Pixar hit is revived (in 2D) for the “giant” screen. 4 p.m. Satur­day and Sun­day, CTI 3D Giant The­ater, Mem­phis Pink Palace Mu­seum, 3050 Cen­tral Ave. Tick­ets: $9 adult (13-59), $8 seniors (60+), $7 chil­dren (3-12). Call 901-636-2362 for show­times, tick­ets and reser­va­tions. Alvin and the Chip­munks: The Road Chip (PG, 86 min.) An­other “squeakuel.” Bartlett 10. Bat­man v Su­per­man: Dawn of Jus­tice (PG-13, 151 min.) HHH Bad blood be­tween the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. Cine­planet 16 (in 3-D), Col­lierville Towne 16 (in 3-D), Cor­dova Cinema (in 3-D), Desoto Cinema 16 (in 3-D), For­est Hill 8, Hol­ly­wood 20 Cinema (in 3-D), Majestic, Olive Branch Cinema (in 3-D), Palace Cinema (in 3-D), Par­adiso (in 3-D), Stage Cinema (in 3-D),

COURTESY OF SONY PIC­TURES CLAS­SICS

Tom Hid­dle­ston is Hank Wil­liams and El­iz­a­beth Olsen is Hank’s wife, Au­drey, in “I Saw the Light.”

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