I SAW THE LIGHT Review

Note: This is a reprint of my review for I Saw the Light, which originally ran on September 13, 2015 after seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am publishing it again today as it hits theaters this weekend.

Hank Williams doesn't seem to have been that great of a guy. He became addicted to the drink, morphine, and other painkillers as well as fathering several children, only one of which he ever married their mother and this all before his untimely death at the age of twenty-nine. While Williams may not have necessarily been the best guy (and possibly one of the worst parents) it is usually these types of people that stand to create the most interesting stories and in Williams case, write the most interesting ones as well. Before becoming popular as a singer Williams was primarily known for being one of country and westerns top songwriters. Williams penned and performed countless tunes for a radio show in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama before securing a deal with the music publishing firm Acuff-Rose as a professional songwriter. All of that taken into consideration, one wouldn't really come to learn much of this from the Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) biopic, I Saw the Light. Abraham's film tends to prefer only patching together a few story points in the singer's life rather than truly digging into its subject's life and finding out what really made this man tick. It's admirable that Abraham doesn't take the easy route of opening his film backstage before one of Williams last shows and using it as a framing device for a period of reflection in which the movie's told, but he also doesn't come up with an alternative way to tell us anything insightful about the man, and a movie needs to offer more than a Wikipedia page does.

Based on the book Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William (Bill) MacEwen, I Saw the Light begins in 1944 when Tom Hiddleston's (Thor, The Avengers) Williams marries Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama, with a justice of the peace. The film never touches on exactly when or how these two met or even provides any reasoning as to why they actually love one another, but instead assumes the audience trusts they do despite the whole of their relationship being soaked in turmoil. If it's not the bickering back and forth between Audrey and Williams's mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), concerning who gets first dibs on the money in Hank's pocket it's Audrey wanting to be a singer herself without owning up to the fact she doesn't have the talent to do so. She insists her husband let her sing on his radio show or at gigs on the road, but while Williams is more than aware of his wife's vocal shortcomings he can't bring himself to tell her no. It should also be noted that Williams is twenty-three at the beginning of the film and while Hiddleston is a good looking, well-groomed guy he's never able to inherit the youth associated with such an age. It is almost immediately that the fighting begins between Williams and Audrey as Williams is attempting to get out of Montgomery and on to the Grand Ole Opry stage. Getting to the Opry is the sole objective for the first hour or so thus allowing for the film to focus on an aspect one would assume would make the film stand apart from something like Walk the Line in that the core relationship here is more of a competitive one where both parties are more interested in themselves and their own successes than each other. It would no doubt have been an interesting angle to explore more of, but again, Abraham simply skims the surface never allowing any of his scenes to actually breathe.

Audrey (Elizabrth Olsen) and Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) perform one of many gigs on the road together.
After hitting on the ups and downs we're in for concerning Hank and Audrey the film skips forward to 1947 when Williams records, "Move It on Over," for Acuff-Rose and it becomes a hit. The family moves to Nashville and begins to get comfortable with their new roles in "Music City," but Williams's drinking gets in the way and Audrey leaves him for what feels like the first of a hundred times throughout the course of the film. We get the obligatory rehab scene where Hiddleston shakes and sweats in a strait jacket before running back to Audrey for her forgiveness. We then get the moment where Williams begs Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) to let him record his version of "Lovesick Blues," that Rose doubts, but allows anyway only to see it become Williams's ticket to the Opry stage. It is this episodic nature of the film that makes it feel like little more than one moment after another strung together in order to inform us of Hank Williams life and times, but never does the film settle into a groove that feels natural to the people it is describing. The whole thing is rather stilted as we can see the recreation happening instead of becoming so involved with the characters and their plights that we forget we're watching actors on a screen. One character in the film describes Williams music as being able to, "expose the darkness inside us all through song so that no one has to take the baggage home with them," and while this may be true (the pioneering facet of country music is how it relates to its target audience) this film about one of country music's actual pioneers never mines its subjects own soul to enough expose his many darkness's.

I Saw the Light tells us that Williams published songs under a pseudonym in order to get the less commercial stuff off his chest, it displays a deep bond between Williams and his steel guitarist Don Helms (Wes Langlois), and it even has a doctor explain to Williams and his second wife, Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson), that Williams has spina bifida that has been the cause of Williams back pain his entire life, but with none of these things do we ever get any real context. We never hear any of "Luke the Drifter's" music, we never see Hank and Don have anything more than short conversations that display their shorthand and we can only guess Williams returned to the drink and to popping pills as a way to numb the pain from his spinal defect. More than any of this, we never see Williams writing a song much less any insight into what inspired him to write as much as he apparently did or how he came to love music in the first place. The usual critique of the performances being good, but the movie failing to live up to them can easily be applied here, but not even Hiddleston's efforts and Olsen's attempts at crafting a complex female character could save this.

Hiddleston's Williams walks off stage during one of his many failed/drug-fueled sets.
While Hiddleston has Williams signature singing style down, his southern accent is a bit off on certain words. And while the story does Hiddleston's performance few favors in allowing him to ever really dig into the psyche of Williams the actor is able to get across the singers inability to ever control his impulse. In one of the few exceptional scenes Hiddleston squares off against David Krumholtz's reporter character as he makes an argument for the sincerity of folk music finally allowing the audience to catch a glimpse of what the real Williams might have been like. While this aforementioned scene is the sole instance in the film where it cuts to the core of the main character there are others, such as when Rose and Williams go to MGM headquarters to visit Dore Schary (Josh Pais), that are only present to solidify the mythology of how Williams is thought of today-as this mysterious, but stern godfather of country music that didn't care if you liked him or not.

All of that said, the film plays it so straight that it's not surprising it goes the way it does and thus we don't really feel anything when the inevitable conclusion comes around and the credits begin to roll. The film looks gorgeous as it is handsomely mounted to capture the warmness and welcoming nature of the south and the period details are more than superior as are the handful of performance scenes we're treated to. Hiddleston does favor the late Williams in facial structure and he pulls off his outlandish suits well. If one is looking for an unsurprising, traditional music biopic this wouldn't be a bad way to go as it delivers exactly what one would expect, but the absence of any real heart or soul is apparent and makes the experience a rather stinging disappointment for myself considering I typically fall head over heels for movies about the process of creating music. Unfortunately, this particular biopic doesn't give us anything revelatory about Williams's songwriting process and if I Saw the Light is to be taken at face value it seems Williams never really had an opportunity to enjoy his success and was more a professional at making a mess than anything resembling a singer/songwriter. Hopefully this isn't the absolute truth and maybe one day we might get a Williams biopic that does the country legend justice. It's simply a shame this couldn't be the film to do that because it certainly had all the right parts in place and potential to be as much.