In one scene of the biopic, I Saw the Light, the great country singer-songwriter, Hank Williams, tells New York journalist, James Dolan, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. Now I’m talking about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to ‘em, and they hear it and they don’t have to take it home.” There was plenty of darkness in Williams, whose fame peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer, but his talent saw him produce a large and influential body of work in just six years.
Williams’ life has all the makings of a great story: young, bright-eyed singer starts making it big, becomes troubled along the way, falls from grace, rises again, and meets a tragic end. So it’s just as tragic that I Saw the Light (which refers to the title of a popular gospel song Williams wrote) fails to tell this story with aplomb. The film, which begins with the low-key wedding of Williams (Tom Hiddleston) and Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) in 1944, lacks an engaging script. Pieces of the plot arbitrarily stumble forward in time. Time hops are of course necessary to save the film from a very long running time (already at just over two hours). However, it feels much longer than that. The audience is never allowed to become immersed in the story because of the unnecessary black-and-white docu-style insertions between chapters, in which Williams’ music publisher, Frank Rose, relates anecdotes about his client. All this serves to do is break up the flow of the plot.
The film explores Hank and Audrey’s tumultuous marriage, his cheatin’ ways, and his reliance on alcohol. “Boy, I’m a professional at making a mess of things,” he says in a moment of self-awareness. Unlike a good musical biopic, the story doesn’t delve enough into Williams’ creation of his art. It’s difficult to join Williams on his journey of joy and pain because the plot isn’t compelling. Williams was immensely popular and recorded 35 singles that made it to the Top 10 of the Country & Western Billboard, 11 of them reaching the number one spot. So Williams’ 1953 death in a car accident at the age of 29 is as great a loss to the music industry as Buddie Holly’s, but the film fails to express this.
When compared to other musical biopics like Walk the Line (about the life of Johnny Cash), Ray (Ray Charles), Behind the Candelabra (Liberace), most recently, Straight Outta Compton (about the rap group N.W.A), I Saw the Light is lukewarm and downright boring (I dozed off). Hiddleston and Olsen both give good performances and manage save the film from being a complete disaster, but only barely. This film lacks the “sincerity” of country music, as Dolan describes the genre.
I Saw the Light wastes an opportunity to educate filmgoers about one of the most significant musicians of the 20th century. And it’s a damn shame. At the very least, the music is good.
Director & co-writer: Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen
Rating: 2½ out of 5