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Entries in I Saw the Light [2016] (1)

Monday
Apr042016

I Saw the Light (2016)

Abraham The Drifter

Like it or not, conventions exist for a reason. We praise filmmakers who subvert expectations, especially those working in genres that invite a reliance on narrative tricks. Biopics (and their black-sheep cousin, the "Based on a True Story" flick), are the biggest offender: no matter how disparate one historical figure's journey is from another, you can bet both stories will be shoe-horned into a crowd-pleasing, three-act structure on their way to the silver screen. Sure, these movies have become as abundant and tiresome as comic-book tent poles, but I felt downright wistful for their familiarity while watching writer/director Marc Abraham's I Saw the Light.

Full Disclosure (Part 1): I knew nothing about Hank Williams going into this biopic. Coming out of it, I still didn't understand why he was such a transformative figure in the world of country music--and that's a problem, considering the movie is ostensibly about that.

Full Disclosure (Part 2): This review feels like cheating. I saw I Saw the Light under circumstances that shaded my perception of what the film is, what it could have been, and what it should have been. I attended an advance screening with a bona fide Hank Williams fan, and was treated to a Q&A with Abraham and star Tom Hiddleston. These three shared anecdotes that my mind's eye translated into a series of criminally un-depicted vignettes; imaginary deleted scenes that revealed Williams' fractured character and tumultuous relationships more effectively than much of what made the final cut. In other words, barring these insider insights, my review (and understanding) should be much shorter.*

In the Q&A, Abraham said he doesn't like biopics because they're too predictable. He didn't want I Saw the Light to be a traditional cradle-to-the-grave story about a drugged-up musician who died in his prime. By skipping past Williams' formative years, though, and fast-forwarding through the decade that the screenplay does focus on, Abraham robs the audience of context. One moment, Williams is getting married in a gas station; two scenes later, he and his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), are sharing a meal with a toddler who, it turns out, is Audrey's daughter from a previous marriage. If this crucial information was included in a brief, drawl-heavy exchange somewhere, I missed it.

The screenplay glosses over similar pillars of Williams' biography. From his odd relationship with his mother (Cherry Jones), who pops in and out of the picture, never aging or evolving; to his pills-and-booze addiction; to his selectively chronic back pain, which stemmed from undiagnosed spina bifida occulta; to alleged physical abuse toward Audrey; to the very foundations of his professional career--I Saw the Light is a narrative disaster. The film plays like a two-hour "Best of" YouTube compilation of a six-hour movie.

Despite all that, I recommend this film. In fact, Hank Williams novices (myself included) should probably see it twice: first for the overview, second to make the overview make sense. The screenplay is a huge problem here, but two things make it surmountable:

1. A charismatic lead performance by Hiddleston.

2. Gripping 4D cinematography from DP Dante Spinotti.

As I said before, I don't know Hank Williams from Adam, but Tom Hiddleston deserves credit for pouring such heart, soul, and research into this part. He performed all of Williams' songs for the movie, and created a unique, natural-looking physical cadence. The downside is that I saw more homework than character in Hiddleston. The actor's drive is so self-evident and electrically all-consuming that it wears out an already fragile movie that is ill-equipped to contain it.

As a result, I can only say that Olsen and the supporting cast fare well.** Given the choppiness of Abraham's screenplay, it's hard to tell what many of these characters want (beyond purely surface concerns) or who they are as people. I can't recall if Bradley Whitford, for example, was a record producer, the head of a label, a co-writer, an agent, all of the above, or none of the above. He's the first person we see on screen, for some reason, and we're told through clumsy dialogue that he and Hank are dear friends--even though his character is as sporadic and vague a presence throughout the film as Williams' mother.

I exaggerated, of course, when suggesting that Dante Spinotti delivered "4D" cinematography, but not by much. He brings the same boiling-over intensity to I Saw the Light as he did to Heat and L.A. Confidential, almost literally dousing his compositions in 50s southern sweat. In many scenes, Hiddleston's Williams looks like a zombie: gaunt, doped-up, and yet possessed of the kind of otherworldly energy that would later compel people to accuse rock 'n roll of being the Devil's music. At other times, such as the opening a cappella performance of "Cold, Cold Heart", Spinotti renders Hiddleston/Williams as beatific pop angel so powerful that light shafts take on the appearance of illustrative flourishes. Even when Williams is at his worst, Spinotti makes Hiddleston (and, by extension, the movie) look gorgeous.

But there's enough artifice in biopics, even those that shy away from the mantle. A well-crafted frame is no good if what's contained within it doesn't make sense. All of the mania involved in the Hank Williams phenomenon, for example, is contained within Hiddleston's performance. At no point did I get the feeling that any of his audiences were watching something phenomenal, something breathtakingly new. Unfortunately, there's a parallel here that extends far beyond the screen.

*For an in-depth discussion on some of these insights, check out Episode 129 of the Kicking the Seat podcast.

**Wrenn Schmidt deserves a least an honorable mention. In her brief third act scenes, she gives backbone to what might have otherwise amounted to a disposable-girlfriend character.