Tuesday, March 22, 2016
I Saw the Light
This carefully respectful, sensitively acted biopic sands all the edges off Hank Williams’s story to create a frustratingly inert portrait of an artist whose soul-piercingly mournful music and preternaturally confident and captivating stage presence made him one of the great musical stars of the last century.
I Saw the Light depicts Williams’s life, in chronological order, as a slow, steady, and ultimately enervating march to the grave. It opens in his early adulthood, when Williams (Tom Hiddleston) has already developed his distinctive sound and stage presence but has not yet achieved fame, and ends with his death—fueled by the alcohol he always abused, and accelerated by the drugs administered by a quack doctor for his debilitatingly painful back—at age 29. But that climax feels only mildly sad, since the film hasn’t brought any of the characters sufficiently to life to make the audience mourn with them after he dies.
Hiddleston’s lanky frame, long, thin-lipped face and mischievous grin make him a near ringer for Williams from certain angles. The sad-eyed yearning he exudes in some of his scenes with Elizabeth Olsen as Williams’s first wife Audrey, his flirtatious confidence onstage, and the sly slipperiness with which he evades conflicts with and between Audrey and his strong-willed mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), hint at a smart, self-confident but self-protective man. But those hints are never fleshed out by the underwritten script, which traces the outlines of Williams’s career arc, relationships and increasingly life-sapping addictions without stopping long enough to fill much of anything in.
But the greatest hole in this film is the one where Williams’s music should be. I Saw the Light includes full-length performances of many of Williams’ greatest hits, but it makes the fatal error of having Hiddleston perform them. The movie’s backup band, which includes Rodney Crowell, does an excellent impression of Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, but Huddleston’s voice fails to achieve the soulful depths of the distinctive, heartbreaking wail that, even more than his borderline jazzy timing or plain-spokenly poetic lyrics, made Williams a star.
I got this Kevin Bradley woodcut from Yee-Haw Industries, a sadly defunct Knoxville, Tennessee, design shop started by one of my former colleagues from Whittle Communications, where I worked in the 1980s.
Written for Brooklyn Magazine