Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Saw the Light

The story of Hank Williams Sr. is interesting - he's widely considered one of the most influential American singer-songwriters of the 20th century despite his near-inability to either read or notate music. He had 35 Top 10 singles, and 11 of those reached the Number One position. All this happened in a remarkably short time, as Williams died at the far-too-young age of 29. He had great troubles in his personal life, beset by alcoholism (Roy Acuff once warned Williams of the dangers of his drinking, telling him that he had "a million-dollar talent, boy, but a ten-cent brain"), drug abuse (he self-medicated to deal with the severe, chronic back pain caused by his spina bifida), womanizing, and a host of other issues. His son would grow up to become Hank Williams, Jr. (better known as "Bocephus") and the third of that line is making quite a name for himself as well. Then there's Jett Williams, who was shuffled around like a marked card. Really, add mournful Spanish moss to this family and you've got a textbook definition of Southern Gothic.

All of this should make for a great, compelling movie. Yet it doesn't.

I Saw the Light boasts an amazing performance from Tom Hiddleston, who does his own, quite credible, singing, yet the film itself never manages to soar. Instead, it bumps along in a series of vignettes about increasingly-unlikable people. Audrey, his first wife, is played by Elizabeth Olsen as a spotlight-seeking shrew. Lillie, his mother, is played by the enormously-talented actress Cherry Jones, who never gets to to much beyond be overly protective of her boy.

The film focuses on the last six years of Williams' life, a time in which Williams was prolific, yet spinning madly out of control. His dream is to appear on the Grand Ole Opry ("the show that made country music famous"), yet he lacks the discipline to stay there, preferring to tomcat around and drink until the editing of this film could possibly make sense. I know that's harsh, but the structure of this film keeps any sort of tension or interest from building - scenes start and end without any rhyme or reason and new scenes begin without context. It's as if you're experiencing an alcoholic blackout - things happen and then something else happens, and you're pretty sure something happened in the middle, but damned if you can figure out what it was and no one's telling you.

Hiddleston is truly amazing, but he just can't save this. Rent it if you want to, but there's no shame in passing this one by.

In the meantime, listen to Hank. He's worth it.

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