“I Saw the Light” reminded me of Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” when it first came out. Both movies have a great cast of actors, a lead actor who perfectly embodies an iconic singer and scenes which vividly bring to life the classic songs of the artists. At the same time, both movies keep their main subjects, in this movie’s case country singer Hank Williams, at arm’s length to where we come out feeling like we never got to know them. Considering the talent involved, this latest music biopic proves to be a major disappointment.
Writer and director Marc Abraham, whose previous film was “Flash of Genius,” eschews Hank’s childhood and goes straight to when he married Audrey Sheppard, a divorce and single mother. They look like the perfect couple, and this is especially the case when you consider the palpable chemistry between stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. But like many biopics, we know everything is going to go downhill for these two, and that’s especially the case with Hank as his life was cut short by alcoholism and a painful medical condition which ended his life at the far too young age of 29.
The movie gets off to a wonderful start as we see Hank singing one of his most famous songs in a sequence beautifully lit by the brilliant cinematographer Dante Spinotti. We are instantly hooked as the country icon’s lyrics capture our attention right away, and it makes us look like we’re in for quite the biopic. Unfortunately, that proves to be its high point as nothing else measures up.
One of the big problems with “I Saw the Light” is that it is so sloppily edited to where it’s hard to tell what part of Hank’s life we are at. It goes from one section of his life to another before we can ever fully digest what is going on. This makes the movie at times very confusing, and it also keeps us from getting to know Hank and the other people in his life more intimately. I felt like I never really understood what fueled his music, and he became the kind of person that is not all that interesting to hang out with for an extended period of time.
Also, the movie feels undercooked to where Abraham has his cast underplay every single scene. Nothing ever comes to life the way it should, and everything soon becomes an exercise in tedium. It’s bad enough that we never get deeper into Hank’s psyche, but to see this story portrayed in such a passionless way makes this motion picture feel like such a missed opportunity.
“I Saw the Light” does, however, have Hiddleston as Hank Williams, and his performance is in some respects amazing. We all know him for playing the evil Loki in the “Thor” movies and “The Avengers,” so at first he seems like an odd choice to play the man who made “Lovesick Blues” such an unforgettable song. But he comes through not only in mastering Hank’s accent, but in getting the audience to feel the songs as much as he does when he sings them. That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing here, and the realization of that makes his work here all the more admirable.
I was also impressed with Olsen’s performance as she makes Audrey perhaps the only human being who could possibly deal with his alcoholism and womanizing. Watching her here makes one realize what a powerful actress she can be, and at times she brings this movie to life in a way no else could.
As for the supporting characters, they are given short shrift here as they serve little purpose other than to further the exploits of Hank and Audrey. Cherry Jones, a tremendous actress, is wasted here as Hank’s mother Lillie as she has little to do other than sneer at any woman who grabs her son’s immediate affection. Bradley Whitford makes a bit of an impact as Fred Rose, the man who helped Hank rise to stardom, but he never seems like the huge part in the singer’s life that he was. Maddie Hasson fares better as Billie Jean, the young woman who would eventually become Hank’s second wife, and she makes you wish that she was in the movie much more than she was.
For what it’s worth, “I Saw the Light” did give me a better appreciation of Hank Williams’ music. I have never been a huge fan of country music, but the movie made me see why his music struck such a chord in so many people. Hank understood the pain of love in a way others didn’t want to experience firsthand, and it was not hard to connect with the feelings he so deeply expressed through music.
Still, the movie never digs all that deep into his life and that makes it all the more frustrating. This could have been one of the best biopics of recent years, but the filmmakers treat their main subject with kids’ gloves and never get more than skin deep. Coming out of “I Saw the Light,” I wanted to read more about Hank Williams on Wikipedia among other places on the internet as there’s got to be much more information on him there than what we get here.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016