I SAW THE LIGHT Review
Tom Hiddleston gives a remarkable performance, with some fine singing, as country music legend Hank Williams but it is not enough to rescue I SAW THE LIGHT, which reduces the singer/songwriter’s skyrocket career and brief life into a grim slog, plodding towards his death at age 29.
Any doubts that Hiddleston, a classically trained British actor who perhaps is best known to American audiences as Loki in the Thor and Avengers movies, could play the country music legend are immediately dispelled at the start of the film. The problem is writer/director Marc Abraham’s script, coupled with uninspired direction.
Hank Williams was a pivotal figure in country music, who changed the genre and also laid the foundation for rock and roll. Like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Hank Williams burst onto musical charts like a skyrocket, blazed brilliantly, then suddenly vanishing, but left a lasting legacy that changed the nature of country music. In the late 1940s, Williams shot to stardom in his early 20s on the strength of his haunting singing, charismatic stage presence and his songwriting, a memorable mix of clever, playful tunes and searing ballads. His songwriting added blues and popular music influences to country music, a break from the traditional folk music that had been the staple of country music before WWII. In the six-year span of his career, Williams had over 30 Top Ten hit songs, with several going to number one. Like other legendary musical shooting stars, Hank Williams lived a fast and hard short life, one marked by alcoholism, marital troubles and significant health problems, before dying in the back of a car on the way to perform a concert New Year’s Day 1953.
This dramatic story should have written itself. But instead of focusing on Williams’ songwriting, giving us insight into his music, or his meteoric rise to fame, Abraham focuses almost entirely on Williams’ sad, messy personal life, particularly on his relationship with his first wife Audrey, played well by Elizabeth Olsen. Audiences who are not familiar already with Hank Williams’ music will hardly have a clue how famous he was or why there would be a film about him.
The film stutters to a start with two false openings, one a black-and-white documentary-type scene in which Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), Hank Williams’ music publisher and father-figure, talks about the singer/songwriter, and then a scene in which Hiddleston sings a heart-wrenching acappella version of William’s “Cold, Cold Heart” against a bare backdrop.
The film’s story really begins with the next scene, in which 21-year-old Hank Williams (Hiddleston) and the newly-divorced Audrey (Olsen) are married in an Alabama gas station by a justice of the peace. The talented, ambitious Williams is quickly making money singing in honky tonks and on a local radio station, despite his already growing drinking problem, his contentious home life where his manipulative, selfish wife and domineering mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) fight constantly. Audrey is ambitious too, to launch her own singing career, despite an inferior voice, and she insists on singing along side her husband, despite complaints from his band members and even the radio station. He dreams of getting a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s premier venue, and finally achieves that after his cover of “Lovesick Blues” makes him a star.
The musician’s difficult personal life, and taste for fast living, were reflected in his songs, ranging from comic tunes like “Honky Tonkin’,” and dark comic “Move It On Over” to heartbreaking ballads like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Yet the film gives us little insight into the man behind the songs, and we rarely get scenes showing his songwriting process.
The best scenes are those featuring Hiddleton singing one of Williams’ many hits, performances that are sprinkled throughout the film but seem somehow disconnected from it. Hiddleston did his own singing and does an excellent job capturing some of Williams’ vocal style and stage presence. While he does not have the singer’s golden voice, he does a good imitation, making this portions almost worth sitting through the rest of the dismal film.
Hiddleton and Olsen give their all in this film, creating strong performances, but there is a lot of bad script to overcome. Jones’ role as Williams mother is reduced to a single-note stereotype, giving a talented actress little to work with.
Oddly, the musician’s sudden surge to fame is hardly noted in the film, which continues to focus on his home life. Although Abraham drew on Williams’ biography, he often focuses on inconsequential events, and leaving out important ones, and having other pivotal moments happen off-screen, including Williams’ death. The black-and-white faux documentary sequences reappear periodically, as Fred Rose serves as a narrator intermittently throughout the film, but always look out of place.
Rather than telling the story visually, Abraham packs the film with talking. Instead of showing scenes of Hank Williams’ wild carousing in honky tonks, we get scene after scene of the musician and his wife arguing about his drinking, carousing and cheating. Periodically, we get a scene where Williams collapses with pain from back problems, caused by late-diagnosed spina bifida. His health issues seem to be largely ignored by those around him who couldn’t see past his considerable drinking problem, and the film suggests those around him were more concerned about his immediate earning potential than his health, or life. “Cold, Cold Heart” indeed.
All that may be true but it is pretty grim thing to watch, when we never see Williams cutting loose and enjoying his fame. The only time he seems to get out of the house or a hospital is to perform one of his hit songs, often a performance that gives us little sense of the venue – whether it is the Grand Ole Opry or a USO show in Germany, they all look about the same. A scene where he goes to New York to play live on television, shows him entering the building before the broadcast but then inexplicably cuts to him in a bar after the show. The only moments of joy we see Williams experience come when we finally gets on the Grand Ole Opry, and when his wife tells him she pregnant. The latter is a sweet, touching scene, which Hiddleston and Olsen play well. Too bad there are so few happy moments shown, in a story we already know has a tragic ending.
That such a landmark figure in popular music should receive such a limp biopic treatment is just a cryin’ shame. Tom Hiddleston’s excellent performance as Hank Williams deserved a better film but the performance alone is not enough to save I SAW THE LIGHT.
I SAW THE LIGHT Opens in St. Louis on April 1st, 2016