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.