Despite a strong turn by Tom Hiddleston as country-music pillar Hank Williams, I Saw the Light is a passionless checklist of a film. This painfully formulaic biopic kicks off with Williams’ unceremonious midnight marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard (an effective Elizabeth Olsen) at an Alabama gas station. The upstart young musician and his backing band currently perform for a weekly radio show, drawing modest attention among listeners and slowly building a following. Audrey has designs of her own to be a featured performer on the show, but her less-than-stellar vocal chops become a major point of contention between the backing band, the radio station, and Hank, which eventually causes him to be fired from the gig. In spite of this setback, Hank idolizes the performers at the Grand Ole Opry and comes to see a residency at the honky-tonk joint as his lifelong goal and measure of success. After meeting with record exec Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), he begins churning out successful hits like “Move It On Over” and “Lovesick Blues,” the latter of which becomes a number one hit in 1949. He soon gets his chance at the Opry and becomes a resident performer, but the thrill of fame and touring is tempered by his worsening alcoholism, chronic back pain, and strained marriage to Audrey (who gives birth to Hank Jr.). The temptations of touring—chief among them the beautiful Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson), who later becomes his second wife—lead to the dissolution of his union to Audrey as his vices take a stronger hold.
All of that might sound like a fine and dandy biopic that pays homage to one of the most influential voices in American music, but writer/director Marc Abraham simply isn’t capable of turning a wealth of source material into a moving tribute to the larger-than-life icon. Williams’ mental and physical anguish was the impetus for his musical genius, as his creative outlet might have been the only thing keeping him from bursting at the seams. He poured so much of his damaged self into his music, but that darkness is sanitized out of I Saw the Light. For one thing, Abraham barely even acknowledges Williams’ output as Luke the Drifter, which became his alter ego as he sang about seeking repentance for a life of sin. Instead, viewers get a year-by-year walkthrough of his life, occasionally punctuated by staged interviews with Rose (which look like they were shot on an iPhone through an Instagram filter) reflecting on crucial moments, along with a whole lot of music-industry minutiae like contract disputes. The seminal events of Williams’ life and career, as well as his essence as a performer, take a backseat to the clumsy, cookie-cutter storytelling.
Perhaps the biggest waste of potential is that Hiddleston isn’t given the creative latitude to truly embody this American icon; the Brit is clearly capable of elevating this material when given the opportunity to do so (such as Williams’ gaunt appearance and collapse during a town fair), and he could have delivered a memorable performance. Hiddleston sings the songs, dons the outfits, and swills the drink of Williams, but the surrounding picture fails to match his portrayal. Remarkably, the potential sacrilege of casting an English actor in such an essentially American role was the best decision of I Saw the Light’s entire production.
This onetime Oscar hopeful is now getting limited run in theaters in March, and will quickly join the ranks of forgotten biopics that sadly missed their mark. It’s an emotionless drag of a film, and fans of Hank Williams are advised to revisit the artist’s catalog instead of heading to their local cinema.