Title: I Saw the Light
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote: Homer: "I just wanted to say your song touched me deeply in a way I've never felt before, and which way to the can?"
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: One-and-a-half Grand Ole Oprys out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Man with knack for songwriting and impregnating women dies young.
Tagline: "People don't write music; it's given to them."
Better Tagline: "Only the good — and bad and tragically flawed — die young."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In his short life, Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) left a legacy unmatched by almost anyone else in country music. I Saw the Light focuses chiefly on Williams's brief (five-year) career as a chart-topping performer, his slightly less brief (seven-year) marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) and his gradual descent into alcoholism and drug addiction, thanks in part to a congenital spinal condition.
"Critical" Analysis: The problem with the musical biopics is they can't help but distill what is (hopefully) an absorbing life into two-ish hours of possibly significant moments. The best examples of these either rely on stellar performances (Love & Mercy, Coal Miner's Daughter) or approach the subject from unexpected directions (I'm Not There, Nowhere Boy) in order to rise above the genre. I Saw the Light does neither of these, in part because writer/director Marc Abraham doesn't know what to do with the material.
Hiram King "Hank" Williams's life itself presents a bit of a conundrum, because the notable part of it was so abbreviated. Williams enjoyed spectacular success immediately following World War II and died on New Year's Day, 1953. Short lifespans can certainly make for compelling storytelling if done right. Done wrong, well, you end up with what we've got here.
First off, you can't fault Hiddleston, who really does give his all. The Hank Williams story is clearly a labor of love for the once and future Loki, and the work he's put into getting the look right pays off well. Does he sound like Williams when sings? Not even remotely, but he's otherwise pretty convincing, capturing Williams's easy charm and channeling what we're allowed to see of his darker impulses.
The film ignores Williams's early life entirely, jumping in at his and Sheppard's 1944 service station wedding. From there, the best word to describe the proceedings is "disjointed." Scenes come and go with little connective tissue attached — one second Williams is prowling the streets of New York City; the next he's quail hunting back home with one of his band members. Abraham also assigns priority to the most mystifying subjects, like how lousy Audrey's singing voice apparently was.
Certain aspects are explained in (fictitious) black-and-white interviews, as if an early decision was made to shoot this "mockumentary" style, and then scrapped. To that end, we get Bradley Whitford (as music publisher Fred Rose) and Rob Boltin (as MGM Records president Frank Walker) giving background in what can't be viewed as anything but a way to advance the story in the laziest way possible.
It's all the more disappointing because Abraham and Hiddleston occasionally touch on the genuine Weltschmerz that affected Williams. He remarks at one point about his duty in letting people release the darkness we all carry inside us. It would have been nice to follow this line of inquiry further, perhaps to see Williams's eventual dissolution as a result of his taking on the role of C&W sin eater. Alternately, Abraham could have gone the "perils of fame" route, showing us the burdens of stardom.
Instead, he chickens out, treating Williams's demise as a destination to be marched inevitably towards, not a tragedy deserving of investigation. Cast efforts aside (I barely touched upon the thankless treatment Olsen gets), I Saw the Light does poorly by the iconic musician it's ostensibly honoring.
I Saw the Light is in theaters today. Want to hear someone who sounds like Hank Williams? Check out his grandson.
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