I grew up in Bakersfield, CA, a small town known for one of the most influential movements in country music history, "The Bakersfield Sound." My grandmother used to play piano for Cousin Herb Henson and my father played drums with several Bakersfield Sound legends. All of this means that I was bred with a pre-disposititon to love old time country music. This also means that any time a film is made about that period of music, I feel a Pavlovian draw to see it, regardless of how cliched it might seem. Such is the case with I SAW THE LIGHT.
Hank Williams is a fascinating player in the history of country music. He brought an honesty to his songwriting that shaped generations of songwriters and contained a melancholy in his voice that suggested some deep-seated pain in his past. All of this was true, of course, but he was also self-destructive in almost every way. To make a movie about his story makes complete sense on paper, but its execution is half-cocked at best. The problem with music biopics is that they all hit more or less the same beats: childhood trauma, daddy issues, addiction, manifestation of daddy issues over the course of several marriages, huge success in the public eye, hiding of private demons, kicking addiction, redemption to a long life/giving over to those impulses resulting in an untimely death.
Working from this formula is a tricky job for a filmmaker as you know you have to heat all those moments, but you have to present them as fresh and necessary to the life of the performer you're choosing to tell your story about. I SAW THE LIGHT has those sorts of ambitions, but Tom Hiddleston notwithstanding, feels unconfident in its ability to reach those heights. The movie is painfully okay with a knockout performance at the center. Marc Abraham certainly understands Williams, but makes the film dependent on the viewer also needing to know a great deal about Williams and the time period. Names of big players in the industry at the time are checked with no context as to who they are or what sort of effect they had on Hank's story. Certain events in Williams's life are thrown away that need to be expanded on for the viewer to truly connect to this story.
At the heart of all the mediocrity lies an absolutely stunning Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston clearly loves this story and this music and went out of his way to put as much care into his performance as possible, including doing all his own singing. He cuts Williams's figure uncannily and never wavers in his Alabama drawl, but his singing voice leaves something to be desired. Hiddleston's got a great old-time country voice, but he comes off as unconfident in imbuing it with the high lonesome pain that solidified Williams as an icon. All that to be said, he's stellar in the part and given absolutely nothing to work with from his fellow performers. Elizabeth Olsen is a good actress, but she is obviously in the film for the paycheck and nobody else gives any sort of a performance worth making a note about.
Something very telling about the film is that it is titled I SAW THE LIGHT and not once do we see Williams perform the song on stage. The film is packed with musical performances meant to show off Hiddleston's hard work to become a musician for the part, but the title song is relegated to a whisper-song sung to his newborn son and a sort of epitaph sang by his band on the night of his death. The song is never given a moment to shine despite it being used as the emotional crux of the film. Another weird choice is to simply show Williams climb in to the back of a car and have a venue manager announce his death to an auditorium full of people in the next scene. We never see the drama of his death or how his 17-year old driver was suddenly thrust into the most adult of situations; attempting to save another man's life. The story feels incomplete as the credits roll and Hiddleston wails "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It's an unsatisfying experience.
Once again, the story of Hank Williams makes total sense to be the focus of a drama. The man lived a fast and short life but affected history in unimaginable ways. We're always fascinated by people who create and what drives them to do so, but I SAW THE LIGHT falls victim to the many potholes of formulaic biopic storytelling. It's not even that the movie is bad so much as it is listless. I would say Tom Hiddleston is an early Oscar contender, but his performance is wallowing in a sea of mediocrity that he is consistently attempting to elevate. I can't recommend I SAW THE LIGHT, but I can't tell you to avoid it all together. Unlike its subject, it's a film that is content simply to exist.