Country Music is a genre that has gotten a mixture of representations on the big screen. From Walk The Line to Coal Miner’s Daughter, there’s a lot of excellent hunky tonk cinematic experiences. But no movie had yet to tackle the tale of Hank Williams, a figure that I can’t say I knew too much about in my youth, and only learned of his catalog as my taste later formed. Yet for the many that probably had no idea that this legendary artist even existed, the new movie I Saw The Light – directed by Marc Abraham and stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen – sadly won’t do much to educate.
We meet Hank (Hiddleston) and his first wife, Audrey (Olsen) as they are about to elope at a local car repair shop. This sets in motion our journey of seeing Williams become the icon that many regard him to be, but instead of showing the highlights of Hank’s short but incredible career, Abraham clearly picked strips of the Colin Escott written biography from a jar, and glued together any part that sounded like a good, cheap, and low-risk taking production. Anything beyond a concert scene (which seemed to all be shot in the same location) or a drunken sex filled fight in an apartment, was cut and replaced with unnecessary “interviews” – ala a high school produced mockumentary, filled with all the cheap black and white filters your heart could desire.
Take for example the moment in which our protagonist is finally allowed to perform at The Grand Ole Opry – instead of presenting any sort of sequence in which Hank perhaps gets a phone call or a letter, we’re shown Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) telling us that such an event took place, in the most monotone fashion possible. These decisions, along with the neglect of any sort of proper introduction to any of the supporting characters in Hank’s life, feels as if we are watching someone dangle a parade of paper dolls in front of the screen, expecting someone to care.
Throughout the course of this “Mr. Williams Wild Ride”, it becomes painfully clear that this movie is more or less an examination of Hank’s relationship with the women in his life. We begin and end with him during his interactions with his love interests, and rather than really showcasing the impact he had on the music world at large, we are only given a glimpse into one shade of what should be a very colorful individual. The same could be said for almost every person that ends up on screen (especially Olsen’s Audrey), whom all seem to be playing essentially the same cookie cutter, biopic role of “inspiration for alcoholism”. And even in the hands of Tony winner Cherry Jones (who plays Hank’s mother, Lillie) this material comes off as one note and lazy as the worst of what Lifetime has to offer.
If you have a scene, in which a character utters the phrase “Hank, you’re screwed up” and the audience proceeds to laugh, rather than quietly acknowledge such truths, than there is definitely quite a large problem here.
And yet there is one person that stands as the one and only reason that anything on the screen could work, and that is Tom Hiddleston. Somehow through this mess of lifeless storytelling and painful dialog, Tom shines as a true star, who tries his best to make what is on the page work to his advantage. From his surprisingly good pipes to his near perfect physical tribute to Williams, he’s got all the right ingredients to have made this a role that would have left a memorable impression on future audiences, much like Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. But since the rest of the film crumbles around him after the credits roll, this possibility of a brilliant performance is lost to the hands of time and creativity.
The same could be said for the overall project, for there are but a few sequences that show there could have been a great movie underneath this shady back alley production. This is most definitely the case for the opening shot, in which Hank sits on a stool in front of an audience, with just a spotlight and his voice (singing an a cappella rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart”) to grab your attention. Similarly a moment in which Hank is interviewed by an anxious reporter, seem to be the only times where I Saw The Light actually felt like – dare I say – a real honest-to-god movie. And both of those scenes total a length of 5 minutes out of a nearly two hour running time. Hank, if you are screaming from your grave that you deserved better – trust me – you did.
With every moment more painful than the next, I Saw The Light robs its audience, and Hank Williams fans, of a true definitive cinematic tribute to the iconic country superstar. One would hope that maybe someone with a much more clear and specific vision could take a crack at this story in the future, but until then, this poor excuse for a biopic is what we have to “enjoy”. And unless you are one of the few people that gets a kick out of eating up bad Made-For-TV movies, than this is certainly going to be a painful experience from start to finish. May I perhaps recommend watching a documentary or better yet reading Hank’s Wikipedia page, either of which I’m sure you’ll find more entertaining.
Movie Grade: D