WHAT’S WITH THE CONTINUED FOCUS ON THE “DEVIL” RATHER THAN THE MUSIC?
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
The opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival afforded me a rare opportunity. Due to the complexities of scheduling, I earned an interview with Casey Bond, one of the co-stars of the Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” a couple of hours before settling down for the actual press screening of the film. Such conversations can be tricky. You go in blind, relying on standard background questions about the project and maybe a few asides dedicated to the previous efforts of the interviewee, usually a bit too general, especially in the case of someone like Bond. A thoroughly likeable fellow, thus far he has primarily been a bit player after trying his hand as a professional baseball player with the San Francisco Giants.
I found Bond to be the consummate team guy. He talked about how fortuitous it was for him to wind up playing a pitcher in his feature film debut (“Moneyball” back in 2011), and how, when the role of Jerry Rivers in “I Saw the Light” presented itself, he had less than a day to make a convincing video of himself playing the fiddle—an instrument he had no experience with at all—so he rushed out and bought one, then came home and taught himself via YouTube. Once he had secured the job, Bond trained in earnest for a couple of months. It was enough time, as it turns out, to be able, along with the other actors selected, to play the basic tunes for close to a dozen Hank Williams songs.
Included in that group of neophyte would-be musicians was the man playing Hank Williams himself, Tom Hiddleston. Up until now, the talented Brit has been known for his mischief-making turn as the trickster god Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is quite a departure from the down home world of the hard-living, hard-playing country rebel icon and loverman who died before his time.
I relished the story Bond spun about the behind the scenes music making, how this rag-tag team willed themselves to become a semi-working band of musical brothers. Somewhere in the essence of this tale is the heart and soul of movie magic, especially when it comes to the creation of art. This is capturing, in the moment, lightning in a bottle.
And yes, a few hours later, when I was staring up at the screen, I found myself more engaged during the musical sequences, watching Bond and the rest of the backing band, doing something more than going through the motions. Hiddleston steals the show though, singing with an eerily spot-on approximation of that familiar Williams twang that just breaks your cheating heart as it charms the pants off you. It is funny to think that his Williams is not all that different than Loki, from a performative standpoint. In the end, Hiddleston manipulates us like a pro.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole breaks the spell woven by Bond’s previous storytelling (which is too bad because the man has the knack of a born Southerner) and Hiddleston’s seemingly effortless grace, sliding into what should be such foreign skin. “I Saw the Light” foregoes spending any real time with the music and the musicians, instead turning its gaze on the devilish details of the marital drama between the great man and his wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen).
Olsen continues to prove to be a firecracker; a livewire here because she has to convince us that she can’t sing well enough to stand alongside her husband and the band. Moreso, what we need to feel is a deep sense of drive and belief that she hears something different, and has the passion to fight for herself and for Williams, once he begins his inevitable downward spiral.
Somehow Olsen hits all the right notes (just like Hiddleston and the band), making us want to believe that “I Saw the Light” might transcend its simplistic structure, but alas, that is not to be. The film offers up a well-worn standard, a musical biopic rooted in the idea that every great genius is a tortured soul, a victim of a series of excesses that fuels the birth of sounds only they can hear. The narratives tell us it is hard living with these demons and we see the mounting sins, the surrender of the flesh up there in all of its larger than life glory.
But I’m tired of hearing the same old tune. I want more of the glimpse that Bond teased me with during our chat. For the fall to achieve its epic stature, we need to truly join in the climb up the dizzying heights. Why can’t a biopic spotlight the birth of the music? Now that would be cool, man.