Country shlock

“Let me tell you about that time I got kicked outta the Opry.”

“Let me tell you about that time I got kicked outta the Opry.”

Rated 2.0

Tom Hiddleston Sings the Greatest Hits of Hank Williams Sr. If it were an album, no one would ever buy it, but that unappealing package is precisely what moviegoers are getting offered via Marc Abraham’s laborious biopic. Relegated to awards season backwash status after lackluster festival screenings late last year, I Saw the Light slinks into theaters sheepishly and pointlessly, like a would-be contender without a fight. Removed from the myopic frenzy of awards season, it feels especially chintzy.

And here we go again, unfolding and assembling the timeworn critical arguments against bad biopics as though they formed some sort of ghastly memorial quilt. At this point, is there anything more tiresome than critics bemoaning the hoary conventions of musical biopics? Believe me, I return to this dry well without any enthusiasm, but as long as studios insist on recycling this inane movie mold like editions in some Godforsaken Franklin Mint collection, I will continue to meet their perfunctory with perfunctory.

In brief: There are endless narrative inroads into the life of a human being, whether famous or infamous or a schmuck. The upcoming Elvis & Nixon is the second onscreen telling of the one time that the King of Rock met Tricky Dick, and that event is at best a mere footnote in both of their lives. Meanwhile, the easiest, laziest, most uninspired inroad into the life of a musician is to structure their journey like a greatest hits record. Why, oh why, do filmmakers burn to tell audiences the story they already know?

Trophies, of course—11 of the 20 nominated actors and three of the four winners at this year’s Oscars played real people, while nine of the last 12 Best Actor trophies have gone to the stars of biopics. With statuettes in its eyes, I Saw the Light religiously follows the Ray blueprint (God help us all), reducing Williams’ short life to a series of pro-sobriety PSAs and endlessly indulgent concert scenes.

Red flags are flown from the opening frames, as clunky fake-doc footage gives way to Hiddleston’s poster-ready pose in front of a mystical audience. It’s a big buildup to a big nothing. While Hank Williams’ music still sounds great, and his influence on country and rock are immeasurable (dead at 29, he was the proto-rock avatar for living fast, dying young and leaving an emaciated, booze-soaked corpse and an exploitable back catalog), there’s not a lot of meat on his life story. He sang and he played, he drank and he died, and somewhere in the middle he sired Bocephus. Roll credits.

But that doesn’t stop Abraham from bathing the film in thudding portent and empty significance. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, a classic light-painter, smears the screen in silty browns and tans, as though Williams lived at a perpetual magic hour. Hiddleston doesn’t embarrass himself or anything, and it’s all competently posed and mounted, but I could never figure out why this plodding cycle of rehab and relapse merited such aggressive bronzing.