Biopic casts little ‘Light’ on Williams
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),
Tom Hiddleston is Hank Williams and Elizabeth Olsen is Hank’s wife, Audrey, in “I Saw the Light.”