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With songs like Your Cheatiní Heart, Hey, Good Lookiní and Move It On Over deeply embedded in the American consciousness, one might reckon the fellow who wrote and sang those songs would have an interesting tale to tell.  Itís not like Hank Williams, considered the first country music superstar, known as much for his brief, tumultuous life as well as for his music, hasnít had the big screen treatment several times already.  The foremost production being 1964ís Your Cheatiní Heart, starring George Hamilton, who brought Hollywood glamour - if not physical resemblance - to his portrayal of Williams.  In I Saw the Light, the superbly similar Tom Hiddleston tries his hand at playing the star.

When we meet Hank Williams in I Saw the Light, heís already on his way to stardom.  The singer/songwriter is the host of a popular radio show where he banters jovially and plays the songs live in the studio that will eventually make his name.  Hankís new love is as hungry for success as he is.  Audrey knows that by helping to push Hankís star into the cosmos, some of its light will shine on her and the world will discover her own singing talents, which sadly, only she can hear.  Even marriage and motherhood wonít settle Audreyís desire for recognition, and it, amongst other things like Hankís wandering eye and the constant battle between his bride and his beloved mama for dominance over Hankís career, causes friction between the couple.  Hankís mellow, laid-back demeanour and permanently amused expression belies the stress of being pulled in so many directions on the homefront and falling short of his ultimate professional goal of playing in the Grand Ole Opry, Nashvilleís mecca of country music. 

Not that itís only outside influences preying on Williamsí psyche; his self-medication for lifeís disappointments finds him crawling so deep in a bottle that he misses paying gigs, damaging his reputation on the country circuit.  That aforementioned wandering eye does him no credit with the tremendously prickly Audrey, and later nearly manages to end his relationship with the second Mrs. Williams after a fling becomes pregnant.  Never mind that with his hectic touring schedule, he barely sees his little son by Mrs. Williams v.1.  Hank Williamsí eventual success, including achieving his dream of playing at the Opry, seems to bring him no joy.  Heís neither happy on the road, nor off it back at home.  The lean, lanky man with the omnipresent cigarette in his mouth (accompanied by a constant cough) is burning the candle at both ends.

If someone went into I Saw the Light with no idea who Hank Williams was or why he deserved to have a high-profile movie made about him, that person will leave the cinema in exactly the same condition, if not even more perplexed.  Never have I seen a starís legacy so diminished as poor Hank Williams in his own film.  I never believed the life of someone considered a musical legend could be as boring as Williams' is portrayed here.  I Saw the Light is a muddied, muddled jumble that gives us no answers or insight into either the man or his music, and makes one wonder why the film was even made?  It skips major moments in Williamsí life (Like learning to play guitar at age 8, through the tutelage of black blues musician, Rufus Payne. I mean, how could that be interesting?) in favour of tired, clichť, countrified soap opera love triangles. 

Thereís nothing particularly shocking in his personal vices.  These are pitfalls that have been examined a million times before in far better films about musicians.  Here, thereís no real sense of loss or danger in his struggle with alcohol or against his libido.  Indeed, whether in his personal life, or in his musical legacy (which one reckons is the point of the film), the script doesnít give us one reason to think Hank Williams was special, or what exactly separated him from other country musicians of the era? 

I Saw the Lightís obvious comparison with I Walk the Line, the seminal biopic about fellow musician Johnny Cash, practically looms over every scene, from the overload of moody half-lighting, and the patented 1950s washed-out, yellowy patina over every shot, to the ultra-tight close ups of Hiddleston at the mic, providing his own vocals to the soundtrack.  Thatís where the resemblance ends, because try as he might, director Marc Abraham simply cannot generate sparks from a script this dry, dusty and dull; which, by the way, he wrote.

Even the performances canít save it.  I anticipated Tom Hiddlestonís turn as Williams and while I wasnít necessarily disappointed, it wasnít such a tour de force that it whisked away the dreariness of the backdrop.  It doesnít help that we get no answers as to why Williams was the way he was?  Why he may have been adored by his colleagues and friends, but was a serial philanderer and addict?  If the film meant to settle more on personality than exploring Williamsí musical legacy, then it fails again as thereís zero character development.  Had there been more meat on that bone, Iím sure Hiddleston mightíve have had a better challenge than simply staying true to Williamsí physical presence and vocal delivery.  Iím sorry to say the latter of those didnít knock my socks off, nor did hearing the British actorís southern accent occasionally waver across the pond.

Elizabeth Olsen does far too well grating on oneís nerves as the domineering Audrey.  Ear plugs should be handed out for her singing scenes, which are truly meant to be quite terrible, and to that end, her screechy, cat in a blender vocals hit top marks.  I couldnít tell if it was intentional that Audrey never gives any indication she has any feeling for Hank as other than her ticket to stardom and wealth, but it felt like yet another lazy writing choice to give her no depth.  Of the revolving door of Williamsí lady loves, curiously, itís Wrenn Schmidt as the woman Hank rejects, refusing to marry her after informing him she is pregnant, who has the most electricity in their scenes together. 

Actually, had Abrahams chosen to center the whole film around the loving relationship of Williams and his strong, supportive mother, played by Cherry Jones, that would have been a million times more compelling than this incredibly unremarkable, two-hour chicken-fried soap opera. 

Still, for all the time spent on Williamsí relationships and so little on his actual achievements or impact, the inevitable end, when it comes, carries no heft or emotion. This movie is a failure. 

A relentlessly dull, leaden script and direction utterly devoid of spark or inspiration sap away any magic or interest in the story of Hank Williams.  I Saw the Light shouldíve stayed in the dark.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 25th, 2016

 

 

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