Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones
I Saw the Light opens April 1.
There’s a fascinating question anyone who knows of Hank Williams asks. How did this small-town Alabama boy create so many songs that influence country music still today? This disorganized, two-hour biopic doesn’t answer that. It concentrates on the non-musical parts.
Writer Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) fumbles his first time directing. Instead of the influences that shaped the artist, Abraham shows us the philandering, the drugs, the booze, and the dull stuff. Williams’ life was a typical country song, but that’s a boring film. How exactly he turned that messy life into memorable tunes remains a mystery.
Williams was ushered into music by his domineering stage mama (a wonderful Cherry Jones pounding out her one-note character). He also married substandard singer Aubrey Sheppard in 1944 in a gas station; this film supposes it was partially to spite his mother, who refused to leave the couple alone. Since childhood, Williams suffered from back pains. Maybe because of this – or because he’s just an inveterate ne’er-do-well – Williams sank into alcohol and drugs as he vied for a permanent spot on the Grand Ol’ Opry radio program.
Yes, that all needs to be covered. However, this is the man who wrote “Honky Tonkin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The genesis of those tunes requires some respect. They should be more than just background soundtrack.
It would help if Hiddleston (Loki from the Avengers films) were more believable as Williams. The English actor starved himself to show Williams’ gauntness just before his death at 29. Unfortunately, in many scenes, Hiddleston’s performance is stiff and presentational. He does his own singing – which sounds only somewhat like Williams – and he’s mostly got the accent and the look. Still, something just doesn’t connect.
Good ol’ boy Williams was more interesting. His songs were simplistic but catchy, instant classics. He was a sinner who also had a religious, conservative bent (hence, the title song, which he was also famous for). He had to have some charm to get all the breaks he was given when he’d show up late and drunk or high to gigs.
Structurally, Light never hits any narrative steam – it’s sometimes black-and-white documentary, sometimes fake home movies, sometimes traditional filming, and sometimes interviews. It feels like Abraham made a crazy quilt; he didn’t know exactly how to tell Williams’ story.
Elizabeth Olsen as Williams’ first wife Audrey is mesmerizing. She takes care of Williams and his children (one is a young Hank Williams Jr.). She navigates his cheating, while she tries to launch her own career. She cannot accept that she just isn’t as talented. She forges a fascinating character, the one illuminating thing in Light.
Despite some solid art direction, this movie is undone by choppy storytelling, an uninteresting arc, and shaky handheld camera. (I kept asking myself, “Couldn’t they afford a Steadycam?”) The whole overlong film never sings; it instead tells the boring stuff in messy ways. It doesn’t shed any light on how this country boy became a simple creative genius.