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I Saw the Light

i saw the light

Zzzzz – ★★

Marc Abraham’s musical biopic of the country singer Hank Williams should have been a winner. The story of the man behind some finest country songs of the 20th century is a tragic one, with addiction and back pain crippling him in life before an untimely death at the age of 29. Throw in full access to the music catalogue and strong casting and surely you can’t fail?

Unfortunately Abraham, working from his own script, opted to try to fit everything in, and so we start with Williams (Tom Hiddleston) at the age of 21 as an unknown with a whole lot of ambition. He has just married Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) and is already living the hard life at night, while getting up at the crack of dawn for a live radio show. He’s writing great songs, and delivering them with his now iconic yodel croon as the stage of the Grand Ole Opry beckons. He eventually reaches the top of the pile and becomes one of the South’s biggest musical stars but a relentless touring schedule and a drinking and pain meds problem derails things, leading to a sad and lonely death in the back of a car on the way to a show.

A country music biopic like this has to be compared to two modern classics – Walk The Line and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. One of these a straight ode to Johnny Cash, and the other a parody of the genre of musical biopics. Unfortunately the film can’t get out of the shadow of either and just trudges along from “set-piece and plot point #1” to “set-piece and plot point #2”. At over two hours, it’s really an hour too long and feels like a real slow-motion picture at times. Consider the alternative takes of musical biopics that we’ve seen in recent years in Miles Ahead, I’m Not There and Love & Mercy which used inventive, often surreal, narrative methods to tell the story of a complex artist and character battling addiction problems.

There is some real joy to be found here though, and that is in the music which was recorded live with some solid crooning from Tom Hiddleston. These songs are truly timeless and to see them performed on the big screen is a delight. Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti understands perfectly the tones and lighting that people want from the South in the 1950s and deserves credit.

It’s also very hard to know the performances of Hiddleston and Olsen who are both note-perfect. It’s just a crying shame that the material on the page isn’t worthy of their talents.

Released in Irish cinemas on May 6th 2016

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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.