Thursday, 5 May 2016

Good lookin': "I Saw the Light"

Saw the light, walked the line. One immediate problem with I Saw the Light, a handsome yet ploddingly dutiful tribute to C&W legend Hank Williams, is its inability to throw off the spectre of that Johnny Cash biopic from fully ten years ago, itself hardly a radical template for the pop biopic. Another is that, for two long-seeming hours, we're left to observe not a change in its subject, rather the change around the subject. Marc Abraham's film opens in small-town Alabama in 1944, when Williams (Tom Hiddleston) was but a womanising charmer never too far from the next bottle of grog; it ends, on the fringes of Nashville less than a decade later, with Williams a famous womanising charmer draining the final drops from the bottle. With the exception of an apparently ever-ready phallus, he makes for an entirely passive protagonist: he's not even driving the car he comes to die in.

In between, this Hank sings a bit, drinks a lot, squabbles incessantly with on-off sweetheart Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), and puts his back out. (The editorial line, apparently drawn from Colin Escott's biography of the same title, is that Hank's boozing was self-medication from the life-altering moment - dramatised upfront - when he was bodyslammed on stage by an irate punter.) Of the first activity, there are enough dips into the Hank back catalogue to please the estate readying the inevitable round of reissues. Hiddleston looks good in the cowboy duds and intuitively mimics the singer's yodels; it's only a pity we have to watch in unforgiving close-up as an Englishman strains to hold onto these elongated, in many ways irreducibly American notes. Of the second and third activities, there is rather more, and it's here that I Saw the Light begins to get bogged down.

I had a soft spot for Abraham's 2008 film Flash of Genius, about the underdog who invented the automated windscreen wiper blade: an unusual story, sincerely told. Here, that sincerity rather gets in the way of a more interesting - and idiosyncratic - film, one that has the guts and balls to admit that Williams was as much feckless louse as he was romantic gadabout, and which didn't have to rely on the lauded cinematographer Dante Spinotti to cast even the subject's DTs in a roseate sheen and glow. All of which is to say that I Saw the Light is too damn handsome for its own dramatic good; unlike last year's underseen Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, it's not notably interested in the process, taking Hank's mid-interview proclamation that "I write what I write and I sing what I sing because that's what I do" at face value. 

The result is that Abraham cannot make convincing the idea that "Your Cheatin' Heart" sprang out of nowhere as a final apologia - nor, really, that it was worth all the relationships pissed away: as presented here, it's just a neat and tidy endpoint, Track 16 on the official tie-in CD. And so where Walk the Line made a substantial, FM-stereo case for Cash's greatness - and for the part June Carter Cash played in that elevation - I Saw the Light plays out in tinny mono: Olsen's Audrey is subordinate for much of the first hour, and usurped altogether come the second, which might only be taken as a tragedy were the audience not beginning to think her better rid of this heel. For much of it, we're left honky-tonking alongside a figure who stopped drinking long enough to knock out a handful of hits and build a fanbase before all too abruptly exiting stage right. There were lots of careers like that, and - at this point in showbusiness history - there have been rather too many unexceptional biopics like this.

I Saw the Light opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow. 

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