One would think that much drama could be wrought from a cinematic take on the life of Hank Williams. A grandfather of country music, the hard-drinking-drugging-loving singer-songwriter died at the age of 29, leaving behind a larger-than-life legacy and many indelible tunes, such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Lovesick Blues.” Curiously, the biopic based on his life, “I Saw the Light,” written and directed by Marc Abraham, is simply drained of all dramatic tension, despite the efforts of Tom Hiddleston, who embodies Williams, and Elizabeth Olsen, as his wife Audrey.
Hiddleston is a perfect match to inhabit the lanky handsomeness of Williams, and does a fine job of vocally impersonating Williams’ singing style. There’s a driving intensity to his musical performances, as he lowers his brow and seems to stare down the audience. Olsen gives the kind of feisty country-wife performance that we have come to expect from music biopics, but it feels more like an imitation of the gold standard — Reese Witherspoon in her Oscar-winning performance as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.”
The two stars are equally good, but together, there’s a lack of chemistry — which is a shame because the film turns most of its attention to their tumultuous relationship. Instead of focusing on Williams’ music, “I Saw the Light” obsesses over his marriage with the domineering Audrey, who has dreams of her own stardom. Despite all the fiery breakups and makeups, neither seems to like or respect the other very much, so why they remain together for so long is a mystery. Later dalliances and quickie marriages illustrate Williams’ weakness for women. However, his personal life is presented as a hindrance to his career, not a spark of inspiration, even though one would assume that he knows what he’s talking about when he sings “Lovesick Blues.”
The scenes from Williams’ life that Abraham has chosen to put on screen in “I Saw the Light” aren’t the interesting ones, they’re the scenes that come before or after the juicy stuff. The choice is puzzling and renders the biopic unfortunately dull. We don’t see Williams tape a TV spot in New York, we see him walk into the building and then talk about it afterward. As the film progresses, the scenes feel seemingly random, barely linked together. They all just drift along with little context, apart from a black-and-white, faux-vintage interview with Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), his producer/publisher, who describes the events in bare-bones detail — “Hank moved out”; “Hank was fired from the Opry.” Titles indicate time and place but are completely arbitrary to the story beats.
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The creative choices to film certain scenes in different aspect ratios like the Rose interview, or in the grainy style of an 8 mm home movie camera, add to the late 1940s flair, but don’t add anything to the story itself. Hank Williams remains a mystery, aside from pill popping, drinking and complicated relationships with women. Even in his performance scenes, Abraham chooses to focus closely on Williams’ face, perhaps to highlight Hiddleston’s physical and vocal embodiment, but doesn’t bring the audience into the picture. Unfortunately, these storytelling choices actively work against the telling of Williams’ remarkable life story, and the resulting biopic doesn’t come close to the legend itself.
I Saw the Light
Rated: R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity. Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford. Director: Marc Abraham. Running time: 124 minutes. Theater: Flicks.