'I Saw the Light': TIFF Review

Tom Hiddleston admirably channels the voice of country great Hank Williams in this polished but often unconvincing biopic.

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen headline Marc Abraham's Williams tribute.

I Saw the Light is the title of one of the most cherished songs by country legend Hank Williams, as well as that of a polished new biopic from producer-turned-director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius). But another Williams standard, “Lovesick Blues,” would have been a more appropriate designation for this heavily dramatic portrayal of the man's short and turbulent life in a film that focuses more on his many marital woes than on the brilliant music he created.

Carried by an uncanny turn from British actor Tom Hiddleston, who convincingly swaps his Loki helmet and staff for a cowboy hat and guitar, the story — based on the nonfiction book by Colin Escott — features the usual ups, downs, binge-drinking and womanizing of your typical artist’s biography, with lots of screen time devoted to Williams’ extremely rocky marriage to wife Audrey, played with zest by Elizabeth Olsen (swapping her own Avengers attire for a full country-Western wardrobe).

But with recent biopics like Love & Mercy, Get On Up and Straight Outta Compton making headway in an otherwise played-out genre, it’s unfortunate that Light feels both too traditional and too concerned with showcasing the life behind the music, instead of trying to explain why Williams was one of the greatest American musicians of the last century — a man who inspired both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan — with timeless songs setting the stage for the rock ‘n’ roll and folk movements that followed.

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Premiering in Toronto and set for a November release via Sony Pictures Classics, this fall prestige picture could garner kudos for its strong lead performances, with Hiddleston bellowing Williams’ ditties like no actor ever has. Still, after past efforts like the 1964 bio, Your Cheatin’ Heart, and the 2012 indie, The Last Ride, failed to do justice to the legend, it’s unlikely that this one will remain an essential cinematic memoir, leaving Williams rather long-gone lonesome when it comes to the movies.

Chronicling the period between 1944, when 21-year-old Hank married Audrey at a Texaco station in Alabama, to his death in 1953 due to excessive alcohol and drug abuse, Abraham’s screenplay follows the singer’s rise from local radio performer to best-selling country superstar, with a string of hits that topped the charts and allowed him to join the famous Grand Ole Opry show in Nashville.

But as much as we get a sampling of Williams’ best work, with Hiddleston offering up compelling renditions of classics like “Move It On Over,” “Lovesick Blues” and “Why Don’t You Love Me,” the bulk of the film involves his tried-and-tested relationship with Audrey, depicted at times as a sort of Yoko Ono who could have destroyed his career.

There are several gags involving Audrey’s imperfect (though by no means unbearable) singing voice, which she forced upon Williams and his band despite his casually aggressive protestations. And there are lots of scenes devoted to the couple’s constant, increasingly violent spats (one involving a loaded gun), with the two of them going at it like Ralph and Alice in The Honeymooners, one-liners included.

Not that Hank was any sort of saint, and his lecherous ways on the road were matched by drinking binges at home, followed by an addiction to painkillers that was brought on by chronic lifelong back pain. He could be charming on one occasion and brutal on another, and Hiddleston has a terrific way of making Williams’ less forgivable behavior seem playful and amusing, and only really harmful to himself.

Yet when it comes to the music, there’s not much to learn here. Sure, the songs were catchy as can be, but why did Williams become such a star in the postwar era, helping bring country into the mainstream? And who were the performers — whether bluesmen or “hillbilly” singers — he drew from to create his own work? (Apparently Williams didn't know how to read music, but that fact is not mentioned either.)

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Rather than showing him as a major artist who came along during a transitional period in musical history, Light is much more interested in revealing his failed love affairs, first with Audrey and then with a string of other women, ending with his last wife, Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson). And while the film tries to structure itself around that aspect of Williams’ life, it starts churning in circles as his relationships all sour and he hits the bottle — and needle — so hard he’ll never make it out alive.

What’s left are the handful of scenes where Hiddleston is simply allowed to sing, making one long for a full concert tribute instead of a biopic with lots of dramatic filler. Not that those entirely fictionalized moments aren’t well performed, and Olsen is equally impressive as a woman who seems to bully her way right into Hank’s world, only to bully her way out when the going gets way too tough.

Directing in a slick and somewhat academic manner, Abraham provides a convincing visual backdrop to the proceedings, using DP Dante Spinotti (Heat) to bathe the singer in warm shadows, with newsreel-style footage that includes a snippet of interviews with Williams’ first record label boss, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford).

Those sequences, as well as one where Williams is questioned by a New York reporter (David Krumholtz), offer some insights into his thought process, though he doesn’t reveal a whole lot — which is maybe why it’s always been hard to craft a biopic around him. His songs say far too much already, and perhaps no story can ever do them justice.


Production companies: Bron Studios, Ratpac Entertainment
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt
Director: Marc Abraham
Screenwriter: Marc Abraham, based on the book “Hank Williams: The Biography” by Colin Escott, with Geroge Merritt and William Macewen
Producers: Brett Ratner, Aaron L. Gilbert, Marc Abraham, G. Marq Roswell
Executive producers: Parry Long, Jason Cloth, John Raymonds, James Packer
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Merideth Boswell
Costume designer: Lahly Poore-Ericson
Editor: Alan Heim
Composer: Aaron Zigman
Casting directors: Denise Chamian, Tracy Kilpatrick

No rating, 123 minutes