I Saw the Light
Tom Hiddleston shines in the role of Hank Williams, but the film just doesn’t sing
I Saw the Light (2016)
Directed by Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen
The life of country-western singer Hank Williams would seem to be the very essense of dramatic biography fodder: famous by 23, dead by 29, elevated to iconic status after his premature passing from drugs, alcohol and automotive mishap. And yet, the tumultuous rise and fall of the short-lived musician eludes capture in the rote musical biopic I Saw the Light.
The film stars beloved British boyfriend Tom Hiddleston, best known for his role as Loki in the Marvel Comics adaptations. It co-stars Elizabeth Olsen, best known for her role as Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Comics adaptations. (Pure coincidence. Pretty soon, everyone in Hollywood will have a role in some superhero movie or another.) As anyone who’s dug into the actors’ smaller roles (Midnight in Paris or Only Lovers Left Alive for Hiddleston, Martha Marcy May Marlene or Kill Your Darlings for Olsen), this is looking like a solid starting point. Hiddleston and Olsen are as good as can and should be expected. The two are easily the best thing going in this film. Unfortunately, their passion and effort is not matched by certain other members of the crew who will not remain nameless. I Saw the Light is written and directed by Marc Abraham, a prolific Hollywood producer stepping behind the camera for only the second time. Abraham’s only other directing effort was the similarly dull 2008 biopic Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear ... as Robert Kearns ... you know, the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks couldn’t have made that story interesting.
In I Saw the Light screenwriter Marc Abraham lets down director Marc Abraham by providing him with a script that deftly sidesteps nearly every bit of drama in Hank Williams’ dramatic life. The story jumps right into the middle of it all with young Hank Williams (Hiddleston) getting hitched to Audrey Mae Sheppard (Olsen), a hot-blooded but somewhat less-than-talented country lass with dreams of stardom. Gone are Williams’ formative years, his rough childhood, his battle with spina bifida, his father’s eight-year absence, the bleak climate of the Great Depression, his introduction to music, his famed apprenticeship with black street performer Rufus Payne—basically everything that made Hank Williams who and what he was. I Saw the Light simply takes Hank Williams, the talented, successful stage performer, as a given.
Blithely unconcerend with questions of how and why, I Saw the Light leaves us with a handful of credibly performed Hank Williams songs and a lot of standard-issue marital discord. The charismatic Mr. Hiddleston does his best with the material at hand, shining brightest when he’s on stage. Not only does he do an admirable job of choking down his British accent, but the guy can sing. Although he doesn’t sound exactly like the distinctive singer-songwriter he’s portraying, the actor has clearly studied every tic and mannerism Williams had to offer. The result is something quite similar to what Joaquin Phoenix pulled off in 2005’s Walk the Line. In fact, I Saw the Light feels a lot like a pale carbon copy of James Mangold’s Oscar-winning biopic. Or just about any other musical biopic, for that matter. Hank gets rich and famous. He blows a lot of money. He cheats on his wife. His wife gets pregnant. They reconcile for a while. He drinks and does drugs. There’s a divorce. Then more substance abuse. In the end, he dies young—his true potential tragically unfulfilled.
The film looks classy, maintaining its temporal, 1940s/50s authenticity with a muted color palette and some slick production design. But Abraham—perhaps feeling none-too-confident in his narrative—undercuts it all by tossing in some fake talking-head interviews and a few newsreel recreations. Bradley Whitford, for example, shows up a couple of times as music publishing executive Fred Rose, reminiscing about his years with Hank. This unnecessary gimmick happens a couple of times and then is dropped like a hot potato. It’s a prime example of the film talking about events rather than visualizing them—which is kind of the opposite of what films are supposed to do. Most maddening of all, the film somehow avoids dramatizing the single most dramatic event in Williams’ life—his death in the back seat of a baby-blue ’52 Cadillac. Bradley Whitford pops up again at the end to explain all the details of the mysteriously premature passing, but we don’t actually see it. It’s the last straw in a long line of poor decision making.
Hank Williams was easily one of the greatest American musicans of the 20th century. His life was fascinating. Tom Hiddleston knows it. Elizabeth Olsen knows it. Deep down Marc Abraham probably knows it. But you wouldn’t know it to sit through this far-too-traditional, surface-level biopic.