I Saw the Light (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt
Small role: David Krumholtz
Director: Marc Abraham
Screenplay: Marc Abraham (based on the book, "Hank Williams: The Biography", by Colin Escott, George Merritt, William MacEwen)
Review published April 3, 2016
Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak, Thor: The Dark World) stars as country music legend Hiram King "Hank" Williams in this biopic on his short life, several loves, and his influential career, in which he crafted such classics as "Hey Good Lookin'", "Move It On Over", and the posthumously released gem, "Your Cheatin' Heart". Starting with quickie marriage to first wife Audrey Mae Sheppard (Olsen, Avengers: Age of Ultron) at the age of 21, Williams and his band would kick their career off playing for local radio, where he ended up not lasting long due to butting heads with the staff, leading him to take his show on the road. He eventually lands a recording contract, where he would become a national sensation, making him in high demand as he would dour throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. But with success comes a dark side, fueled by alcoholism, womanizing, chronic spina bifida and a failing marriage.
I Saw the Light suffers from a curious lack of thematic through-line that could make this life of a storied singer/songwriter an insightful drama. Directed in a rather stodgy and stuffy fashion Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), who also adapted the biography into a screenplay, I Saw the Light covers a few of the more interesting of elements in the life of Hank Williams, but fails to make the man sympathetic or relatable, feeling more like a vessel that coasts through various events without the passion or interest one might normally expect from someone who soared from obscurity as a poor boy in rural Alabama to the playing the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville while at top of the country music industry in just a few short years. The life of Hank Williams, in this film, seems like a boring, troubled one full of mostly self-inflicted misery.
My rule of thumb when it comes to music biopics is that, if you were to remove the concert performances from the film, would it still be interesting to follow? While a legendary and influential performer like Williams is certainly worthy of dramatizing for film, unfortunately, Marc Abraham can't find a way to string together all of the milestone moments of Hank's last ten years of life and make it compelling above and beyond the fact that his catchy country songs were successful. The film also doesn't inspire us by truly explaining what drove Hank to write the songs in the first place, other than having Audrey to allude to herself as his muse. The lyrics could certainly have been woven into the thematic fabric of his story. We don't even get to see him writing the songs; they just seem to magically be there for him to sing when he takes the stage. Instead, we get momentary interludes of Williams ' live persofmances, sometimes in good health and sometimes not, having no particularly significance to us in the moment other than to enjoy the movie's covers of Hank's greatest hits.
The same could be said of what makes Williams do anything else in the film, such as what inspired him to become a musician to begin with, what made him fall in love with Audrey, or any other woman, or what he did while off stage other than hard drinking, carousing, or arguing with his spouse or band-mates. Much is made of Williams having a dark side, but even that seems to be not particularly novel, as he drank to excess and chased quite a few skirts, which seems to be the story of just about every musical biopic that Hollywood churns out. There is a scene of a drunken Williams with a gun, but when you find out he's just doing target practice on empty bottles in the backyard, you wonder why it's even shown, other than to have another reason for Audrey to want to walk out on the marriage. Off the stage, all we really see is the inner demons, making it hard to see the light side of Hank Williams, which is ironic, given that the film is called I Saw the Light.
The acting is a double-edged sword. Hiddleston and Olsen are fine actors in the right roles, and perform their singing parts well enough to be credible (or, in Audrey's case, not so well), but they seem too modern-day in their physiques to buy as 1940s country folk, and their southern twangs, while not bad for thespians hailing from London and Los Angeles, respectively, still seem unnatural, further emphasizing the artifice than the art of the film. At no time can one look at Hiddleston, who is clearly in his mid-30s trying to play a man mostly in his early 20s, and say, "There's Hank Williams!", and that's a big part of why the movie can't find a way to settle into a comfortable groove.
The film feels like it's curiously missing an ending, and many parts of it are tied together through some sort of poorly shot talking-head interview segments of Williams' music publisher Fred Rose (Whitford, Saving Mr. Banks) that describes far more about what's going on in Hank's life than the two-hour movie bothers to show first hand. These segues run curiously like Band-Aids placed to hold a troubled production together. Hank Williams had a short life, dying at the age of 29 in a manner only mentioned in a verbal statement, and from causes alluded to but not mentioned by the movie (a heart attack, mostly due to the combinations of drugs and alcohol he was overusing). It's a choppy film full of many moments that often seem slapped together in a manner where the pieces don't fit, and some are missing altogether, never allowing us to admire a complete picture of the man or his life to walk away satisfied.
At the end of the film, Williams remains an enigma, as the film rarely gives us insight on the genius of his approach to music, the passion that drove him to success, or the character flaws that saw him take a great deal of what he built up for granted. While Williams' music will live on indefinitely, this biopic will be largely forgotten within a month after its theatrical run. Like a well-worn Hank Williams LP pressed in the 1940s, there are too many scratches, pops and skips in the record to be able to get truly lost in the beautiful, emotional spirit of his mournful ballad.
©2016 Vince Leo