Hank Williams Is Alive in 'I Saw The Light', But the Movie Itself Is D.O.A.
Not even game performances by its two leads can salvage a slapdash biopic that offers little insight and far too much superficial sentiment.
I Saw The LightDirector: Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt
Studio: Sony Pictures Classic
US date: 2016-04-01 (Limited release)
Some people can't be explained in a two hour movie. No matter how hard you try, no matter the level of detail you offer or insight you provide, their personalites and professional impact just can't be contained. Sure, some biographical films get it right. Straight Outta Compton, for example, meshed the behind the scenes drama between members of the legendary gangsta rap group N.W.A. with their impact at the time and their resonance today (especially in the area of race).
In other instances, as in most biopics, we get overgeneralizations, a wounded reliance on iconic moments, and a failed ability to draw a discerning portrait, and the hope that you don't mind the repetitive, retrograde approach. Experimenting can help (see the Brian Wilson / Beach Boys based Love & Mercy for such a winner), but usually, the results are ridiculously vague.
I Saw the Light might have a game central performance by dashing Brit Tom Hiddleston, but no matter how hard he tries, the elements surrounding him turn his attempt at capturing the musically magic (and personally tragic) myth that is the late, great Hank Williams. Known as the father of modern country music, the hard drinking, hard living legend may be an impossible subject to whittle down to the narrative basics, but the attempt here is so superficial and cursory that it makes for a waste of time and effort.
It's also told in a slipshod, confused manner by writer/director Mark Abraham who, frankly, should stay far away from the sound stage. A producer of such middling product as The Thing (remake) and The Last Exorcism II, his surrealistic mishmash approach to this material, combining oddball dream-like sequences, and modern day "interviews" in stark contrast to Hiddleston's relatively accurate version of the stage Williams, offers nothing you really care about and almost no answers to why the iconic musician ended up dead at age 29. Yes, that's age 29.
We begin in 1944, with Williams marrying a failed chanteuse named Audrey, played with spirit by Elizabeth Olsen. Already a raging alcoholic, the movie then delves into his other reprehensible behavior. Certain milestones are mentioned, e.g., the recording of his timeless hits, the rampant womanizing, the trips to the Grand Ole Opry, the rowdiness of the road, but this is all surface. We never get deeper into his story. As with many country lyrics, one envisions a person who suffered for their art. Hiddleston's Williams might appear to be in pain, but Abraham's script doesn't put that pain in perspective.
He also makes Williams noted onstage style boring. Yes, his actor is going organic, eschewing any playback or lip syncing to bring an authenticity to the role. But try as he might, Hiddleston misses the Williams' twang and tartness by just a hair. He's got the lankiness and the charisma, but you never once buy him completely as the myth. Instead, he consistently comes across as an imitation, and a borderline unbelievable one at that.
Another flaw is the constant reliance on the music to make us care. For anyone coming into I Saw the Light without a knowledge of who Williams is, or his importance in the genre, this tactic may be necessary. The art is the extension of the artist, after all. But Williams is more than just a collection of hits. He's a cornerstone in one of the most popular sounds of the era. He found and forged it. Those who know this then will accept the songs while wanting more. Instead of giving us that, Abraham's film flounders under the weight of its desires to be "true".
There are some real showstoppers in this film -- literally -- such as the fake interviews meant to fill in gaps in our understanding of who Williams was as a man and a musician. Just as Olsen and Hiddleston get us to care about their characters, just as we are swept away by yet another mesmerizing version of a classic tune, some talking head shows up to halt the proceeds dead in its tracks, and more often than not, the movie never recovers from this. We want to get lost in this world, not be constantly reminded of how staged it all is.
In essence, I Saw the Light suffers from far too many "Whys?" Why did Williams drink and drug and debauch himself to death? Why were his inner demons so dark and driven? Why did he sabotage his success time after time? Why was so much talent trapped inside such a troubled man? Abraham's soap operatics don't come close to addressing these questions. Biopics often get a bad rap for getting its subjects wrong. I Saw the Light doesn't even try.