I Saw the Light is one of the year’s bigger cinematic disappointments.
The film is a downer because it contains a powerful central performance from Tom Hiddleston as country-music legend Hank Williams. Hiddleston looks, and more importantly, sounds the part, performing live with a strong singing voice and a great stage persona. When I Saw the Light focuses on live music and studio performances of Williams’ standards, it shines.
But when the film examines his life between the songs, it is a dull, unrewarding experience. Most people know Williams died tragically young (at the age of 29) of alcohol- and drug-related complications, and that he had a messed-up love life. However, it’s hard to accept that his life was as dull and humorless as writer-director Marc Abraham’s film suggests.
The movie picks up before Williams gets his big break. He’s performing his original songs on a radio show and marrying newly divorced singer wannabe Audrey Mae Sheppard (a strong Elizabeth Olsen). Williams toils away in honkytonks and tries to make his mark at the Grand Ole Opry, where they are a bit resistant due to Williams’ reputation.
Of course, Williams does eventually make his Opry debut, and it’s during moments like this that Hiddleston captures the spirit of the singer and gives us a hint of his justifiable legacy.
It’s the love-life stuff that is treated with a morose, dark, clammy tone that makes the film a task to watch. It way overstays its welcome at two-plus hours.
Beyond Williams’ failed marriage to Sheppard, the film covers his dalliances with random women, and his final wife, Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson). The time spent on Sheppard does feature a decent performance from Olsen. She does an admirable job of singing—in a purposefully mediocre manner, as Sheppard suffered industry ridicule for her voice. When Olsen essentially leaves the film, the female-lead baton is passed to Hasson, and her main directorial instruction seems to be “pout and scowl a lot.” Her presence brings the film to a halt.
The movie opens with a nice, solo performance of “Cold, Cold Heart,” with Hiddleston alone in a smoky room as the camera circles him. His voice is strong and contains the proper amount of emotional heft. It’s a moment that seems to be setting the film up for good times. Then the film effectively goes to sleep. Abraham saddles the film with long, dreary takes during which the actors and actresses use sleepy tones and volumes.
Williams must’ve raised some hell in his day. He must’ve played some pranks on band members, or trashed a couple of hotel rooms. He probably also shouted out a joke or two to provide life with some laughter. However, none of that makes it into I Saw the Light. Hiddleston is asked to play the man as a dull ghost rather than a robust, flawed legend. When he’s singing, the movie has life. When he’s arguing with his mom, it’s dreadful.
Abraham relies on basic biopic clichés to move the story along, including the old fake black-and-white newsreel interview gimmick. It’s proof that the writer was stuck and needed to cheat his way out of self-induced plot ditches.
Tracks like “Lovesick Blues,” “Honky Tonkin’” and other Williams classics provide interesting interludes, but I Saw the Light will be remembered more for its dullness rather than its great musical numbers.
I Saw the Light is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).