Toronto Film Review: ‘I Saw the Light’

I Saw the Light TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

Despite committed performances from Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, Marc Abraham's Hank Williams biopic is a dull, unfocused slog.

Like a sonnet, or a hymn, Hank Williams’ songs are timeless both because of and in spite of their structural limitations, using primary colors to drill down to the primary essences of the most primary human emotions. Unfortunately, Marc Abraham’s Williams biopic “I Saw the Light” fails to mirror its subject, focusing on the footnotes, the asides and the marginalia instead of the singular genius at its center. Despite a thoroughly committed, impressive performance from Tom Hiddleston as Williams (and an even better one from Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife, Audrey), the film tackles the life of one of the 20th century’s most seminal musicians with all the passion of a stenographer, making for a dull, unfocused slog through what should have been an effortlessly cinematic story. Evergreen interest in Williams’ music — and curiosity at how well such an indelibly British actor can channel it — may drive initial box office for this Sony Classics release, but it’s unlikely to set the woods on fire.

The film telegraphs its stylistic confusion from the very start, beginning on a black-and-white faux interview segment with Williams’ publisher Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), followed by an a cappella performance of “Cold, Cold Heart” which may or may not be a dream sequence. Those two false starts out of the way, the pic then dives straight into the heart of the story, with 21-year-old Williams (Hiddleston) and the recently divorced Audrey (Olsen) abruptly getting married at an Alabama gas station.

Not yet particularly famous, Williams is making a steady living as a musician, though his drinking is already putting a strain on his regular gig at a local radio station, and Audrey’s insistence on singing with him — despite her less-than-Carter-Family-caliber voice — is putting a a strain on their marriage. Choosing to concentrate on Williams as a drunken philanderer first and a musical genius second, the film returns to these two basic conflicts again and again as it proceeds chronologically through the last decade of his life.

Dreaming of making it to the Grand Ole Opry, Williams finally gets his foot in the door when his cover of “Lovesick Blues” hits No. 1 on the country chart, and hit after hit starts to subsequently flow from his pen. We don’t really get a tangible sense of his rise to the top — nor do we get more than a passing glimpse at him actually composing a song — but the crowds at his shows grow larger in tandem with his increasing lust for booze and women, and before long he’s reading divorce papers and developing a reputation for flaking on gigs.

No biopic could ever manage to capture the entirety of such an eventful life — despite dying at the age of 29, Williams managed to pack several more decades’ worth of living into that truncated frame — but the omissions Abraham makes are puzzling. It’s one thing to cut out all reference to his tutelage under Rufus Payne, or to confusingly underplay his failed first audition for the Opry and his early encounters with Rose (though these were arguably three of the most formative experiences of his career). But what’s stranger is the director’s insistence on skirting around the key moments he does bring up.

For example, one sequence shows Williams and his pedal-steel player-confidante Don Helms (Wes Langlois) walking into CBS studios in New York to appear on TV; this is followed by an abrupt cut to the bar afterward, with a band member saying, “That was a good show.” Abraham re-creates the hunting trip on which Williams fell and hurt his back, leading to escalating drug use, yet his actual accident occurs off-camera. Several minutes are expended on Williams’ trip to Hollywood to negotiate a possible movie role, without ever explaining what happened in the end. Even the singer’s death is bungled, with Rose’s faux documentary footage giving us all sorts of details on the reasons Williams had to hire a random university student to drive him to a New Year’s gig, but Abraham neglects to film the fateful trip.

This tendency to laboriously tell us about incidents that the film could have just as easily shown undercuts its effectiveness again and again. Fortunately, “I Saw the Light” comes belatedly to life in the all-too-sparse performance scenes, and Abraham’s decision to let the band actually play live pays off mightily. (Thankfully, we’re miles away from George Hamilton’s lip-sync-driven 1964 performance in “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”) Erasing all traces of Britishness from his voice, Hiddleston makes for a very effective country singer; he doesn’t necessarily sound like Williams, but as with Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” the sheer amount of effort the actor took to nail a number of the singer’s distinctive tics, hiccups and blue notes is obvious.

Then again, perhaps that effort is a little too obvious: While Hiddleston wears his character’s Southernness like a carefully tailored suit, Olsen’s seems to have seeped several layers beneath her skin, and she brings a vital sense of lived-in authenticity to her scenes. As Williams tells a newspaper interviewer in the film: “Folk music, hillbilly, it’s sincere. There’s nothing phony about it.” Would that “I Saw the Light” had taken those words more to heart.

Toronto Film Review: 'I Saw the Light'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 11, 2015. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a ​RatPac Entertainment presentation in association with ​CW Media Finance of a Bron Studios and RatPac Entertainment production. Produced by Aaron L. Gilbert, Brett Ratner, G. Marq Roswell, Marc Abraham. Executive producers, Parry Long, Jason Cloth, John Raymonds, James Packer.

Crew

Directed, written by Marc Abraham, based on "Hank Williams: The Biography" by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William Macewen. Camera (color/B&W), Dante Spinotti; editor, Alan Heim; music, Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Carter Little; production designers, Meredith Boswell; art director, Rob Simons, costume designer, Lahly Poore-Ericson; sound, Steven C. Aaron; re-recording mixer, Rick Kline; assistant director, John McKeown; casting, Denise Chamian, Tracy Kilpatrick.

With

Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, David Krumholtz, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wes Langlois.

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  1. George says:

    I like HANK!

  2. Nightbird says:

    I would only wish that my late father-in-law would have been able to see this movie, he was Hank’s first cousin and they were raised togther in the logging camps. Too bad the movie doesn’t seem to show any of his younger years…

  3. Rafique says:

    I saw the original entertaining Your Cheating Heart flick way back in the mid sixtie and I thought George Hamilton did a good jod of portraying HW.I never got to see the movie again but I never forgot it.So now here comes,after 50 years,another biopic of the legendary country & western iconic singer who left us his unique and unforgetable brand of music.I am really looking forward to see Tom Hiddleston’s version of HW….particularly his handling of the music.I am sure Tom has the talent to give his audience what they are looking for…..sheer good entertainment!

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with this review. I saw it a few months ago and it felt dead on arrival, despite the cast doing their best to prop up the material. It feels like they lost footage and had to make it up later by overtly referring to it later on. I also saw a weird subplot involving an unnamed figure interviewing record execs and colleagues about Williams that felt way out of place. The.y really should have tried to focus on the relationships that sustained Williams’ short life instead of chopping up his life into a series of episodes with no connective thread

  5. Chris Watson says:

    Perhaps the screenwriter and director made a Herculean effort to capture the essence of this man who was a tortured Southern genius but it was too difficult since they had no personal background.

    My Mom knew Hank as she shared the stage with him during his days at the City Auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama where he sang and sometimes was the Master of Ceremonies for Saturday night dances. I grew up singing his songs and hearing from my Mom about his escapades as a young man.

    Hank was a genius and but also alcoholic, but sadly his life wasn’t redeemed by a 12 step program like Johnny Cash.

    My only criticism of the movie would be they should have never left out Rufus Payne’s contribution to Hank’s life. He taught Hank how to play and find his soul connection in the music, but it didn’t save him from his demons.

    My 81 year old Mom can’t wait to see the movie. Her opinion is the only one that matters to me as she knew the real deal.

    • Hugh Jaynus says:

      I highly doubt your mom knew HW. She’s 81, while he wouldve been at least 93, that’s a pretty big gap in ages. There’s nothing more annoying than random commenters claiming either they themselves or a close relative knew a famous musician/celebrity. It’s an obvious ploy for attention and tbh it’s kinda sad!

      • Hugh Jaynus says:

        @Chris- Also, I find it funny that you don’t really say anything new or give ur own opinion. All you do is just repeat what was already said in the article.

    • Nad says:

      I would like to know what your mother will say about the movie since she knew Hank. That’s very interesting.

  6. Lilly Chase says:

    It also would have been nice had there been one honest, meaningful moment, gesture, or eye contact between Williams and Audrey that conveyed more than a one dimensional connection. I disagree with your assessment of Olsen. An SNL parody of Hee Haw could have better pulled off the southern drawl and any headway Hiddleston was allowed to make with the abominable script occurred once her part was done.

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