>I Saw the Light opens with a bold statement of intent: Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston), perched on a stool on an otherwise bare stage, sings “Cold, Cold Heart” with minimal accompaniment. The tall, slender British actor does the singing here and elsewhere in this musical biopic, and the fact that he’s both ballsy enough to take on this intimidating role and skilled enough not to embarrass himself, well, it grabs your attention. You understand why Sony Pictures Classics originally wanted to release this movie during last year’s awards season. Unfortunately, the rest of this incomprehensible film makes you understand why the studio reconsidered.
While his singing is the best thing here, Hiddleston does miss the note of keening despair that made Hank Williams such a great singer. Admittedly, this is the hardest part of impersonating Williams, but the actor’s renditions of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are technically admirable without touching the songs’ heartsickness. He’s not exactly comfortable with the yodeling on “Lovesick Blues,” either. Hiddleston is shown off much better in more upbeat numbers like “Hey Good Lookin’ ” and “Move It On Over,” and he gives a sweaty, haunted rendition of one of the Luke the Drifter recitations to a bewildered Texas audience. There’s a great, hushed moment, too, when Hank and his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) sing an a cappella harmonized version of the title song to a newborn Hank Jr.
Covering Hank’s 1944 marriage to Audrey to his death eight years later at age 29, the movie is adapted from the biography by Colin Escott and others, from which writer-director Marc Abraham crafts a story that’s so much gibberish. There’s no rhythm to this piece, so its 124 minutes feel endless. Abraham gives us no sense of the time period and Southern setting, nor any sense of the musical environment from which Williams sprang. Mistresses appear from nowhere and then vanish with just as little ceremony. Hank drinks, tries to quit, rolls around with naked groupies, shivers in a hospital while drying out, all without any cause that we can see. The man is a complete mystery to us, as we’re given precious little clue about either his music-making methods or the demons that drove him to seek refuge in alcohol and women.
Worst of all, I Saw the Light gives no idea of its subject’s legacy, despite boasting performances of nine of his songs. If you didn’t know, you’d guess from watching this movie that Williams was just a singer who was popular for awhile before dying young, rather than an icon whose influence reverberated through the decades and far beyond country music. We’re left with a big pile of music-bio clichés, the same ones that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story parodied so mercilessly, without even gaining the structure that the clichés are supposed to give. Now the subject of myriad film and TV biopics, Hank Williams still hasn’t received anything close to the treatment his achievements and his flaws merit.
[box_info]I Saw the Light
Starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. Written and directed by Marc Abraham, based on Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen’s biography. Rated R.[/box_info]