Monday, 2 January 2017

I Saw The Light

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am a sucker for a biopic. But as a music buff, there’s nothing quite like a good biopic of a musician. Stories of rises (and falls) in the music world are fascinating, and make for great cinema. The recent Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy is among 2015’s best films, while films like Control and Walk the Line are classics of the genre. When I heard a Hank Williams biopic was coming up, I was excited. But did the film, I Saw The Light, meet expectations?

Out now on DVD, I Saw The Light doesn’t exactly live up to its subject’s legendary status. Chronicling Hank’s brief life, the film portrays his rise to fame and the tragic effect it took on his health and personal life in the 1940s and 50s up until his death in 1953 at the young age of 29. Any biopic’s success can be measured by the strength of its lead performance alone. When portraying someone who has been in the public eye and is near-and-dear to many people’s lives, there’s a lot of pressure. And who did I Saw The Light get to portray one of the most significant and influential people in American music? One of the most British actors around, of course!

Yes, Tom Hiddleston follows the utterly phenomenal High-Rise with this, delivering a booze-soaked performance as the honky tonkin’ country legend. For the average viewer, this isn’t a bad performance. Hiddleston puts a lot of effort into the iconic singing voice, but I just didn’t buy it. I was very aware I was watching Tom Hiddleston for the entire film – he just didn’t become Hank. This wasn’t helped my early controversy before the film’s release. Williams’ grandson, Hank Williams III, publicly expressed displeasure for Hiddleston’s casting on several occasions. “You got no moan or soul in your voice”, he said in response to Hiddleston’s singing, before going on to say “for it to be somewhat natural, it needs to be an American from the South who has eaten, lived and breathed these kind of roles before to make a more respectable movie”. With the leading star in a biopic not living up to the subject, the whole film is destined to fall apart. Incidentally, the 35-year-old Hiddleston is 6 years older than Hank ever was…

Still, the main problem with I Saw The Light was the sheer unoriginality of the delivery. Biopics have come a long way in recent years and taken all sorts of approaches. Films like Miles Ahead went the semi-fictional stylised way with mixed results, while Love & Mercy cast two actors to play the role of Brian Wilson in two different eras. I’m Not There takes the cake, with six performers portraying Bob Dylan – and one was Cate Blanchett! With all these developments in biographical filmmaking, basic straight-forward delivery like this no longer grab the viewer’s attention. The film’s unfocused and tepid structure is a bore, and certainly doesn’t do justice to Hank’s fascinating life. Firstly, Hank’s rich body of work takes a back-seat to the portrayal of Hank as a self-pitying drunk. Despite being marketed as somewhat upbeat, the film is a depressing tale of an alcoholic who is late for his own gigs, cheats on his wives and generally can hardly stand up. And here I was expecting a story about the jolly country singer behind “Hey, Good Lookin’”.

This dark stuff may very well be true, but it’s hardly a respectful way to tell his story. I’m not saying it should’ve all been swept under the rug, but a few more moments of comfort and joy wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even Control, the Ian Curtis biopic, was more entertaining than this.

So to conclude, is I Saw The Light worth your time? Sure, if you’re a Hiddleston devotee. He truly tries to impress and largely he does, but you can’t shake the thought that you’re simply watching him doing an impression of Hank. Sure, you could argue that’s what acting is – but the best performances make you forget you’re even watching an actor. And maybe if you’re fan of the genre, or Hank himself, it’s worth a look. But the whole thing feels like a depressing missed opportunity. I Saw The Light shows us Hank Williams’ ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ – but not much else. 2/5


Sam Love

I Saw The Light at CeX

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