Friday, April 1, 2016

I Saw the Light: Needlessly dim

I Saw the Light (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

During a remarkably prolific career, Hank Williams released 35 singles that reached the Top 10 in Billboard’s Country/Western best-sellers chart, 11 of which hit the coveted No. 1 spot. Many of the latter — among them “Lovesick Blues,” “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” — continue to be covered, to this day, by new pop and country artists.

Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) indulgently allows his wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) to
join him at the microphone, during one of their live shows on radio station WSFA ... while
the members of his backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, try not to wince.
All the more remarkable, considering that Williams’ recording career was so brief. To paraphrase an old chestnut, when Williams was as old as Mozart, when the latter died at age 35, he (Williams) had been dead for six years.

Writer/director Marc Abraham’s biographical drama focuses exclusively on William’s professional career, from shortly before his first recording session, to the substance abuse and weak heart that claimed his life at age 29. But despite being based on the respected 1994 biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen, Abraham’s film is a maddeningly superficial affair that devotes far too much time to Williams’ alcoholism and his prickly, on again/off again relationship with Audrey Mae Sheppard, at the expense of conveying even the slightest sense of the singer/songwriter’s creative spark.

Although I Saw the Light is laden with Williams’ songs — performed with impressive faithfulness by star Tom Hiddleston, who sings every note — they all arrive whole and complete, as if God simply dropped them, fully formed, into Williams’ head. We see no scribbled lyrics and crossed-out rhyme schemes; no late-night experimentation with guitar chords; no real-life incidents that bring a smile to Hank’s lips, and prompt him to sit down and pen a tune.

That’s simply nonsense.

By dropping us abruptly into the rising, post-WWII arc of Williams’ career, we also get no sense of back-story: the boy who took guitar lessons from Alabama blues musician Rufus Payne, and how that shaped what followed; the kid who was isolated from his peers because of spina bifida, which left him unusually gaunt. Abrahams opens his film with Hank’s marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), thereby bypassing all sorts of essential details that would explain why she and his mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) despise each other so much.

Granted, the broad strokes are obvious: Both women want to control Hank’s career. But that alone isn’t enough to justify the obvious contempt Lillie shows for Audrey, and we’re left to wonder what went down before this movie begins.

Mostly, though, Abrahams gives us a thoroughly unflattering portrait of Williams, played to insolent, short-tempered and highly unstable perfection by Hiddleston. He’s an excellent actor, easily able to project the charisma with which Williams could light up a stage. But the unflattering emphasis on Williams’ flaws frequently feels like character assassination.

We spend almost two hours with Williams as a sullen, irresponsible and occasionally nasty drunk; not until late in the third act does Abraham reveal the spina bifida. That’s a crucial detail, and one that goes a long way toward justifying the man’s chronic drinking, as a means of dulling the constant pain in his back. Armed with that information, we’d be much more sympathetic during the entire film, rather than viewing Williams as no more than a reckless and negligent drunk.

By the same token, it’s difficult to get a bead on Audrey. Olsen initially casts her as a mean-spirited control freak with delusions of her own grandeur: a wannabe performer with a terrible voice, who nonetheless insists on singing with her husband, and blames him when he fails to disagree sufficiently with everybody else’s diplomatic suggestions that he not ... let ... her ... do ... that.

Once again, we wonder: What brought these two together, in the first place? And what gave Audrey the notion that she could sing?

Later, in the face of Hank’s drinking and constant infidelities, we almost feel sorry for Audrey: the “abandoned” wife left to raise two children, while her husband is constantly on the road. But no; given the eleventh-hour revelation about Hank’s truly crippling back pain — despite occasional lip service, Abraham simply doesn’t emphasize this sufficiently — Audrey once again emerges as heartless.

Olsen nails the accent and Alabama sass; she flounces about with a clumsy air of entitlement that seems right for Audrey. And, yes, she and Hiddleston share a few scenes of poignant tenderness, most notably when, just shy of finalizing their divorce, he persuades her to give him one last chance. That’s an emotionally powerful scene; it’s a shame Abraham can’t deliver more like it.

Despite Olsen’s game effort, she never transcends being an actress playing a role. In contrast, Maddie Hasson is far more natural, and convincing, as the smoldering sexy Billie Jean Jones, who enters Hank’s life in 1952. Hasson’s Billie Jean exudes both earthy carnality and uncomplicated loyalty; she seems content to accept Hank for what he is, and we believe her.

Wrenn Schmidt also delivers nicely shaded work as Bobbie Jett, Hank’s go-to other “other woman.”

Jones, a long undersung actress of incredible range and delectably nuanced performances, is given shamefully brief screen time; Lillie does little beyond hurling snarky comments from the sidelines. We need to see much more of her; we also need a far better understanding of the degree to which she managed her son’s early efforts at establishing a career. Again, giving mere lip service to how Lillie “drove young Hank all over Alabama for years” doesn’t quite cut it.

Then, too, Williams obviously has a strong bond with the members of his backing band, the Drifting Cowboys, most notably Don Helms (Wes Langlois). Hiddleston and Langlois share several quiet scenes, Don obviously struggling to find a way to help his longtime friend and colleague out of the hole into which he has fallen. Even here, though, we’re left to fill in the blanks.

The inescapable conclusion is that Abraham is neither a good writer nor a savvy director. This is only his second film as director, after 2008’s little-seen Flash of Genius; he simply doesn’t seem to know how to use his actors to their maximum potential. Hiddleston and Jones light up the screen despite Abraham’s influence, not because of it.

Abraham also does his film no favors via the use of a clumsy narrative device: a series of short “interviews” with Hank’s longtime Nashville mentor/producer Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), which bridge time-shifting intervals in Williams’ career. This technique has been used to excellent advantage in other films — Warren Beatty’s Reds comes to mind — but here it feels forced and intrusive, invariably taking us out of the drama.

Although Abraham fails us with character detail, he does give a strong sense of Williams’ upward struggle toward fame, starting with the early morning, twice-weekly 15-minute live shows in the studio of radio station WSFA. The coveted goal is the Grand Ole Opry, but it proves elusive; obtaining representation from Rose leads to an MGM Records deal, and then a spot on the Louisiana Hayride, a syndicated radio show with considerable reach.

And, yes; we can’t help smiling at the machinations of fate, when Hank pushes to extend a 1949 recording session long enough to lay down a version of the 1922 Cliff Friend/Irving Mills tune “Lovesick Blues,” initially made popular by Rex Griffin. This becomes Hank’s first No. 1 hit, resting atop the Billboard charts for more than four months. (Again, aggravatingly, although duly noting the song’s popularity, Abraham never tells us about that impressive chart-topping reign.)

From the standpoint of performance alone, Hiddleston certainly dominates this film; we’re now getting a better sense of the British actor’s range, which is far greater than his ongoing villainous turn as Loki, in the Marvel Comics movie universe. But Hiddleston’s fine work cannot compensate for Abraham’s woefully inadequate narrative, or his often clumsy pacing.

1964’s Your Cheatin’ Heart may be a superficial trifle by today’s standards, and George Hamilton’s Hank Williams isn’t a patch on Hiddleston’s interpretation, but in many ways that older film is far more satisfying.

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