I Saw the Light Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones. Directed by Marc Abraham. Rated R. Opens Friday at Regal Village Square.
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that British actor Tom Hiddleston would be playing legendary country musician Hank Williams—as indubitably American an icon as there is. As it turns out, Hiddleston’s performance is one of the few pleasures offered by I Saw the Light, a dull biopic with too much interest in its subject’s boozing and womanizing and virtually no interest in his singular talent. This sort of Behind the Music superficiality is commonplace, but writer-director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) somehow manages to make a figure as inherently appealing as Williams even more of a tiresome cliché than usual for the genre. Only when the man’s music is playing does the movie briefly sputter to life.
While Abraham makes a few feints toward structural artiness, I Saw the Light mostly sticks to a breezy chronological survey of Williams’ too-short life. (He died of heart failure at 29, at the height of his fame.) The film’s primary focus is Williams’ tempestuous relationship with his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), a mediocre singer whose professional ambition is a constant source of friction—though not as constant as Hank’s wandering eye (or, you know, his cheatin’ heart). It’s Audrey who pushes Hank to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, in the hope of joining him onstage, and the film dutifully charts the singer’s gradual rise to the top of the country charts. At every opportunity, though, Hank Williams the singer-songwriter is shoved aside in favor of another peek at Hank Williams the philandering, drunken, pill-popping jerk. Since that guy resembles every other musician in the history of music (or at least in the history of movies about musicians), it’s hard to care much about him.
Both Hiddleston and Olsen commit wholeheartedly to the couple’s codependent dynamic, and they occasionally make I Saw the Light watchable in spite of itself. And when the band plays Williams’ hits (live, not lip-synced), their joy is infectious, providing a welcome reminder of why we remember the man more than half a century after he died even though he only released two albums during his lifetime. It’s not because his ordinary human frailties were uniquely compelling, yet that’s what Abraham seems to believe with all his heart. When it comes to rote biopics like this, the title of one of Williams’ songs sums up the attitude of many: “You’re Gonna Change (Or I’m Gonna Leave).”