"I Saw the Light" tells the story of Hank Williams. Not the right-wing second one or the gutter punk third one, but the original, hillbilly country music icon (and winner of a posthumous 2010 Pulitzer Prize).
The really complicated thing about making a film based on someone's life is deciding which part to tell. Should the writer try and cram in as many years as possible, or focus on something specific, such as the path to fame or a great love? "I Saw the Light," concentrates on a very specific period of years, AND a great love...neither to much success. Writer-director Marc Abraham chose to write about Williams' life between 1943 to 1949, which were the years Williams was most successful in his career right up until his death at age 29.
In 1943, Williams met and married Audrey Sheppard. This is also where the film starts, making its most crucial misstep, crippling the entire story in one massive choice. The opening scene of the film is the couple's marriage in a Texaco station in Alabama during a rainstorm. The scene is beautifully shot, but signals that we will never know what brought these two together or why they spend any time at all with each other.
Even though Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen are both fantastic as Hank and Audrey, their marriage is almost never at peace, with their fights portrayed in a way that paints both in a very unflattering light. Consequently, as almost the entire film focuses on a relationship built on zero context, a sense of who they actually were to each other is missing.
Hank's cheating heart led him to multiple women and groupies, plus his addiction to drugs and alcohol made him a terrible husband and father. Audrey's own dreams of being a recording artist made her jealous toward Hank and detached from her young son. What we have here is one of those biopics that decidedly ignores lionizing its subject, focusing on the demons and shadows of the Williams family instead. The problem with this approach is that the script doesn't let the audience see Williams as an artist, either.
There is a moment late in the film where Williams is being interviewed and he talks about all the letters he receives from people sharing their troubles. These people sense a kindred spirit in Williams, the man who wrote, "I'm So Lonesome, I Could Cry." Yet we never see the ruin taking root in his soul or the loneliness and depression that drove him to write some of his best lyrics. Every scene stays above surface level, content to give the audience shallow highlights.
Hiddleston nails the aw-shucks persona of Williams perfectly, but he is never given a chance to find what made the man tick. He has breathed life into Williams, but not shown us how he thinks. Olsen also digs in as deep as she can as Audrey, but when Williams and Audrey split, so does the film, absolutely abandoning the character in the final 30 minutes.
It is very respectful to paint a dead celebrity's life in colors that aren't always flattering, because then they become human to an entire culture that never knew them as a person. With "I Saw the Light" the colors are dull and muted and although a whole new generation might learn about what he did, people certainly won't know who he really was, not from this.
"I Saw the Light"
Dir. Marc Abraham
Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX