I Saw the Light *½
In the big-screen memorial I Saw the Light, the music legend Hank Williams strums a guitar and hits the road and the bottle, all while flashing a smile as blinding as the lights of a semi on a dark highway. He also sings, but each time he does it’s a reminder that it’s not Williams on the soundtrack but the British actor Tom Hiddleston. As Hank, Hiddleston leads with charm and a twang, keeping the beat with his shoulders, hips and feet. He looks as good as the movie, but if you want to hear what white soul music sounds like you need to fire up the real Hank Williams.
I Saw the Light is the latest movie to try to capture that certain ineluctable something about Williams (1923-1953), the poor Alabama boy turned country-music star who died at 29 and inspired later legends like Bob Dylan. Other big-screen disinterments have tried to do right by Williams, including Your Cheatin’ Heart, a 1964 biopic starring George Hamilton, whose singing was dubbed by the teenage Hank Jr. The writer-director of I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham, sticks closer to the facts than previous treatments, but perhaps because he’s farther from Williams’s moment, he turns the story into an old-fashioned, hand-tinted postcard that’s as inert as it is pretty.
The music is, of course, the point of the story, or should be, even in cover versions, so it’s strange that Abraham doesn’t pay it more heed. The story picks up with Hank as an adult and folds in assorted studio recordings and stage performances, but there’s little about who and what inspired the real man, including the black gospel music he listened to as a child and the black musician who taught him guitar, Rufus Payne. Not much appears to be known about Payne, but their relationship has the makings of a classic American story, one that ended with one man in an unmarked grave and the other one, after a rise and fall, enshrined in music halls of fame, biographies and myth.
Abraham largely dodges that myth and Williams’s hold on American music, hearts and ears, though he does give him an uncharacteristically articulate speech about why people love his work. Instead, Abraham focuses on the greatest hits and private headlines, narrowing in on Hank’s stormy first marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), a beauty with a flat voice whose great passion seems to have been a misplaced belief in her own vocal talent. Much of the movie follows the arc of their marriage, a grindingly unhappy union marred by her jealousy of Hank’s talent and increasingly plagued by fights and infidelities. Audrey’s grasping ambition gives the character spark, but Olsen doesn’t have the lines or guidance to elevate this harridan beyond cliché.
A few barbed scenes with Cherry Jones as Hank’s mama, Lillie, meanwhile, suggest that you can learn more about some men by spending five minutes with their mothers than a few hours with their wives. It’s instructive that Hank Williams: The Biography, the book that the movie is based on, suggests that even those who thought themselves closest to Williams didn’t know him. Abraham seems to be acknowledging the elusiveness of his subject in the opener, which shows Hank on a stool in a circle of light, his face in shadow as he sings an a cappella version of Cold, Cold Heart.
As Hank’s features emerge from the dark, you grasp what Abraham is trying to suggest, even if he introduces this honky-tonk bluesman as a Sinatra-like saloon singer.
Part of what defeats Abraham and may help explain why Hiddleston’s performance, however appealing, never gets below the surface, is that Williams is one of those artists whose eloquence is expressed through his work. That eloquence is in his lyrics and melodies as well as a voice that, especially when it quavers on the high end, conveys a sincerity he transfers to his listeners. That voice has a singular sound, and it carries a specific American history and way of feeling and being that finds the holy not only in the Bible, but also in a lonesome whippoorwill, a midnight train and ordinary life and people. When Williams sang to his audiences, they knew that he heard them, too.
By the Sea *½
After careful consideration, it would seem By the Sea is not an interminable exercise in narcissism but, instead, a loving homage to Robert Wiene’s groundbreaking 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which writer, director and co-star Angelina Jolie Pitt channels the somnambulist.
OK, that’s a cockamamie theory, if ever there was one, but I’m searching for some reason Jolie Pitt has managed to take a film that includes two of the most watchable people on the planet (Jolie Pitt and husband Brad Pitt), a story that involves voyeurism and naked beautiful people and some of the most gorgeous seaside settings you’ll ever see, and turn it into such a boring movie. Why else would she sleepwalk through the film?
Granted, there is a reason, one you will guess pretty quickly into the 2-hour, 12-minute running time. But the means don’t justify the ends, though the means are beautifully shot by cinematographer Christian Berger. It’s like a fashion magazine put out a video to help you sleep. Cut down to 90 minutes, who knows? But at its current length, By the Sea is a chore, if a nice-looking one.
Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) arrive, courtesy of a Citroen convertible, at a hotel in a small village on the coast of France in the 1970s. We learn that he is a writer and she is a retired dancer. They seem to have come for him to work on a book, but mostly, he drinks. And mostly, she does nothing much, except look sad and work on her makeup. Her demeanor is ice cold, especially toward Roland, though she appears to love him. He has pent-up frustration practically coming out of his ears, so he spends his days at a cafe run by Michel (the great Niels Arestrup), downing various libations while looking like a million bucks — though over time, a somewhat dissolute million bucks.
Just when you fear the film will drone on in this fashion one minute longer, it does. But finally, a newlywed couple, François (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent), show up and move into the room next door. They’re just another distraction at first, like the lonely fisherman Vanessa watches rowing out to sea and back every day.
One day, Vanessa discovers a peephole in the wall that looks in on François and Lea’s room, who are on their honeymoon and attempting to get pregnant. So there’s a lot to see, and Vanessa sees all of it. Eventually, she brings Roland in to watch, as well, and it seems as if it rekindles a spark between them. Voyeurism — a potentially under-explored marital aid. But there is still trouble afoot; Vanessa thinks Roland desires Lea, while Roland thinks Vanessa has the hots for François. It’s a regular Peyton Place they have going on there.
The reason for Vanessa’s sadness and remoteness will be revealed, of course, long after the viewer is likely to have deduced it. While we wait, Roland suffers and drinks some more, Vanessa takes long hot baths and mopes, and François and Lea have lots of sex — all under the watchful eyes of Roland and Vanessa.
Jolie Pitt is going for a European cinema vibe here, but all the smoking, drinking and speaking in French can’t disguise the fact that there isn’t a lot going on here. Filmmakers reserve every right to demand patience from their viewers, but they have to provide a worthwhile payoff in the end. By the Sea simply doesn’t.