Tackling a biopic of arguably the most popular and influential country music artist of all time certainly must have been a daunting task. For writer/director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) it’s a task that’s just out of reach as his adaptation of “Hank Williams: A Biography” by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwan consistently fails to compel and instead relies on the most tried and true tropes of the musical biopic (drinkin’, womanizin’) as superficial icing on a cake with no layers.
We begin, in a most perfunctory way, with a faux interview (in black and white, cropped like a TV screen) with Fred Rose (William’s first record label boss, played by Bradley Whitford in a throwaway role) and then into a stunning a cappella version of “Cold, Cold Heart,” performed live by Hiddleston, as he’s bathed in cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s dreamy light. It’s a great example of what the film could have been. I will say that Abraham’s decision to have some of the vocals and performances recorded live is the best decision he made; they’re incredible.
Balancing the music and the person behind it is always a tall order for a musical biopic but despite Abraham’s worst instincts, the central performances from Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Olsen (as Williams and his wife, Audrey) are so stellar it’s almost enough to overlook the film’s deep flaws. Almost.
A confused batch of styles and approach and some truly bizarre jump cuts and editing (from Oscar winner Alan Heim, no less) clip scenes and keep them from having the impact they’re supposed to. Screenplay 101 lines of dialogue like “You’re a real piece of work, Hank Williams” and “Boy, I’m a professional at makin’ things a mess” are always on tap to reduce Hiddleston and Olsen’s performances from being real to being cardboard cutouts. Though, not for lack of trying. Both Hiddleston and Olsen rise far above what they’re given. Olsen, whose Audrey is given the Yoko Ono treatment (bad singer, always trying to infiltrate the band) finds much more than what’s on paper. Cherry Jones (TV’s Transparent), as Hank’s mother Lillie, has a few juicy scenes of snappy dialogue and Wrenn Schmidt (TV’s The Americans), as one of Hank’s many ladies, also stands out.
But for all of the great performances, Abraham chooses to focus on the fussin’ and fightin’ between Hank and Audrey like a walking talking country song instead of the grit and determination that got Williams to the Grand Ole Opry. We rarely see him writing his now legendary songs. We know that he drinks too much and that Audrey resents him for it but then we’re treated to a smash cut of him trembling in a hospital bed and then checking out of rehab before we even know he was there. Major points in Williams’ life either happen off camera (his hunting trip injury, Audrey’s abortion, his demise) or are eschewed entirely.
Somewhere in I Saw the Light is a great story. Aside from the questionable editing choices it’s technically marvelous. From Spinotti’s photography to the almost painstakingly detailed period work by designer Meredith Bowell and fully fleshed out musical performances there is an inner struggle, a great film dying to come out and reveal itself.
Sometimes digging into the heart of an artist or performer to find their truth is too much to ask. Reclusiveness and secrecy are often paramount and peeling back those layers to reveal more can sometimes even expose a personas a phony, like pulling back the curtain in Oz. But not even the prettiest of façades can disguise the emptiness underneath. Maybe that’s its own metaphor for the life of an artist but it sure doesn’t feel like Hank Williams deserves to fall under that category.
I Saw the Light will be in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics on March 25th and wider on April 1st.