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"I SAW THE LIGHT"
(2016) (Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A rising country music star must contend with his behavior that threatens both his career and the relationships he has with various women in his life.
PLOT:
It's the 1940s and Hank Williams (TOM HIDDLESTON) is a young country music performer who has his own radio show in Alabama, thanks in part to the efforts by his manager-mother, Lillie (CHERRY JONES), to further his career. She clashes with Hank's new wife, Audrey (ELIZABETH OLSEN), but both want to help him reach his goal of one day performing at the Grand Ole Opry. An executive there, Jim Denny (WILL BEINBRINK), says Hanks needs to follow protocol to make such an appearance and suggests he team up with producer Fred Rose (BRADLEY WHITFORD) to hone his act.

Hank does just that, but as the years pass by, his drinking and womanizing ways put a strain on his relationship with Audrey. That eventually results in their split and him moving in with country music star Ray Price (VON CLEVE LEWIS) and starting to see Bobbie Jett (WRENN SCHMIDT).

Despite her ending up pregnant by him, Hank has already set his eyes on young Billy Jean Jones Eshliman (MADDIE HASSON) who eventually becomes his second wife. During all of that, Hank's career takes off and he becomes a huge star, but a chronic back problem, issues with drinking and other substance abuse, and his womanizing ways threaten to derail his career and his relationships with others.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
At one point in "I Saw the Light" -- the historical drama about country music legend Hank Williams whose life and career were cut short by disease at the young age of 29 -- the protagonist states that everyone has a darkness in them, and his music addresses such issues. And later, in direct relation to that, he states, "I'm a professional at making a mess of things."

That revelation about extremely talented and popular people also possessing personal demons that threaten to derail such careers and even lives would be something if it was being addressed for the first time.

Or done in a different way. But writer/director Marc Abraham ("Flash of Genius") takes the standard approach that now stands in line behind the likes of "Ray," "Walk the Line" and other such films about gifted but troubled artists.

Yes, even without knowing much about Williams' life -- beyond being familiar with his songs having heard them on the radio as a kid while my mom was ironing, and knowing he was -- natch -- father to Hank Williams Jr. (best known to non-country fans as the former opening song performer for "Monday Night Football") -- I figured I already knew the plot trajectory that was about to unfold in front of me.

And that would be a young talent who wins over a young lady and has a kid with her, but his success and bad ways -- drinking, drug use and cheating -- would derail that union and start to undermine his career. That's not a fault of the script -- based on "Hank Williams: The Biography" by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen -- as it follows the real life events, but Abraham doesn't do anything special or remarkable enough with the material to make it stand out.

Which is too bad because Tom Hiddleston (best known for playing the villain in "The Avengers" and "Thor" movies) does his best to inhabit the role, warts and all, and creates a compelling look at the man. And that includes having to adopt the southern twang in both talk and singing, with the actor having no formal training in the latter and having to adapt his natural English accent for both.

It's a solid performance all around for the actor, but he, co-star Elizabeth Olsen (playing his wife) and others are trapped in a mediocre movie that feels like a superficial highlight reel rather than an intriguing or engaging examination of the man and/or such a troubled and tormented artist.

The fact that Abraham starts the film when the protagonist is already 23 (rather than showing his likely tumultuous childhood that would obviously influence his later work) neither impressed nor bothered me. It's just that moving from one chronological element to the next is done without any sense of building momentum or real engagement. I watched in a state of neutral emotion -- even the performances fail to pop -- and when everything wrapped up, I left the theater not really feeling anything.

It would have been interesting had the filmmaker taken a similar approach as Danny Boyle did in "Steve Jobs" by focusing on just three pivotal moments in the life of that man, thus breaking the mold of the usual biopic. Alas, that sort of approach doesn't happen.

The end result isn't awful, but the fact that it's slow, episodic and repetitive of what we've seen countless times before means it makes little to no impression. All of which likely explains why the studio pulled the flick from its previous Oscar-bait release date and deposited it in Spring where it will be long forgotten by the time award season comes rolling around. The all-too-familiar, episodic and ultimately superficial "I Saw the Light" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 29, 2016 / Posted April 1, 2016


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