Audiences are about to see American music icon Hank Williams in a whole new light.
From director Marc Abraham (whose other feature film credit was 2008’s Greg Kinnear-starrer Flash of Genius) comes I Saw the Light, a Hank Williams biopic that brings the singer’s dark past of booze, infidelity, and generally being an all-around “sonuvabitch” to the big screen.
The main problem with the film, which feels like it slogs with a tired morose from start to finish, is that the story of Williams as a drunk isn’t a particularly interesting one–at least not when it isn’t balanced out with any other redeeming parts of his life as an inspired artist, and one so culturally important to rock and roll on the whole. In choosing to focus on the darker and more unknown parts of the troubled star’s life, we also get a heavy heaping of drunkenness and depression which, when assembled together in awkwardly edited fragments of the singer’s life, fail to make the case that his life was movie-worthy.
Based on the book Hank Williams: The Biography, the film stitches together an assortment of moments from Williams’ life–an early marriage to Southern Belle Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), recording sessions here and there, the arrival of a new child, one or two other scenes of Williams actually performing in concert–along with Williams’ indulgences in drugs, alcohol, and women. While Abraham may have wished to tell a more honest story of the man under the 10-gallon cowboy hat by crafting scenes that feature one, two, or three people, the economy of the movie just feels too small to hold interest in. Noticeably, most scenes take place in small recording studios, bedrooms, and other tight spaces, which only ultimately expose how empty the story is; when you notice that Williams is wearing the same pajama pants in three separate bedroom scenes, it’s probably clear that there should have been more diversity in scenes, or moments of his life, rather than continuing to beat the movie’s central focus of dealing with depravity like a dead horse.
As biopics go, and as another rock biopic to profile a legendary American icon country singer, I Saw the Light won’t be able to distance itself from the Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line, which continues to age and arguably stand as one of the finest biopics ever made. Where Cash’s devil-may-care attitude was rebounded by his madly crazy love for one Ms. June Carter (with completely inspired performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon), Williams is portrayed as a man troubled by his own demons and nothing more, which makes for an all-consuming character that comes off as just plain selfish.
Tom Hiddleston manages to give a graceful and connected performance, as the English actor embodies the tortured star in a collected manner with the twinkle in his eye for delinquency. However, something about the lean Brit never feels particularly, dare I say it, American, and with such a limiting script, we never feel like we learn much more about Williams than his more scandalous ways. Elizabeth Olsen is along for the ride as Williams’ first wife, in what’s a two-hander type role, until around the third act when she (and her overly twangy country drawl) fall into the background when her less than faithful husband finds courtship with two other women. What feels like a cliche device of Williams learning of a chronic back illness that slowly deteriorates his body and psyche, putters out to a less than satisfying ending to what was already a drag.
I Saw the Light fails to deliver what its title promises, as Williams fails to find enlightenment or meaning in a life of fast living. By the time the story caps at his youthful age of 29, we are only left to wonder what this story’s fuller potential could have been if it didn’t wish to live in the shadows the entire time.
2 hr 3 min. Rated R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity. Opens this Friday.