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I Saw the Light

April 1, 2016
I Saw the Light

If you’re a big fan of Hank Williams and his contributions to country music, I Saw the Light may well be the movie of the year for you. I wouldn’t know, since I went in knowing next to nothing about the man or his career. But when I came out in pretty much the same condition, that spoke more to the movie than my own less-than-enthusiastic interest in the Grand Ole Opry.

This has nothing to do with the most obvious head-scratcher, casting an Old Etonian like Tom Hiddleston as a man who came up from a hardscrabble Alabama childhood. Hiddleston does a fine enough job, even singing his own covers of Williams’ classics. And they sound pretty good to me, though again I don’t really know from the originals. Nothing rings particularly hollow or false about his performance, though that’s probably what most people are wondering about.

No, the problem seems to be that writer/director Marc Abraham is a really really big Hank Williams fan. Sure, you might think that you really want to have a biopic made by someone who loves and appreciates the subject, but Abraham seems too close to Williams to understand the perspective of anyone who isn’t already on board.

For example, I’m aware enough to know that Hank Williams Jr. exists. So when Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) has a baby midway through the picture, I know that it might be him. But did Williams have another son? I didn’t know until I looked it up later. They never really name him in the movie, except one time they use his nickname, “Bocephus”, which I also had never heard of before I went to look it up. And though all dedicated Hank Williams fans may know that he nicknamed his son after the dummy in a very popular act at the Grand Ole Opry, I certainly didn’t.

Okay, so there’s trivia I didn’t get. But for Abraham, the single biggest driving force behind Williams is his love for all things Opry. Drawing out the source of that nickname could have reinforced his point for a much wider audience. As written, it remains the province of that audience which already knew the story, and presumably already gets the idea about Williams’ complicated feelings towards Nashville.

Any maybe it’s okay that this one is just made for the in-crowd. That’s going to be kind of a let-down to Olsen, since she’s clearly in this one hoping it will do the same thing for her career that Walk the Line did for Reese Witherspoon’s. Abraham does lean awfully hard on the whole on-again, off-again relationship with Audrey, though, beefing up her part to put her in striking distance of awards voters’ thoughts.

Myself, as a Hank Williams outsider, I was a lot more interested in the whole Luke the Drifter subplot. Half a century before Garth Brooks came up with Chris Gaines, Williams used “Luke” as an outlet for some very different recordings, often more spoken-word recitations than songs as such. It was a darker, more thoughtful side of the singer’s repertoire that sheds an entirely different light on the man and his life.

But Luke was entirely less commercial than Hank, and thoughtfulness never does seem to climb the charts. I think Marc Abraham, with his career as a producer far longer than his time in the director’s chair, chooses to side with Williams’ producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford). He understands his audience and his market far better than he understands his characters, or even than he wants to understand them.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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