Before seeing the Tom Hiddleston-fronted biopic I Saw The Light, my only awareness of influential country singer/songwriter Hank Williams was through my grandmother, who’d play his records as she cooked, swiveling her hips and chirping along. Maybe my Pap would come in, and plant a kiss on her rouged cheek. I barely noticed, being very invested in coloring or colorforms or hassling my little sister. Then, I Saw the Light.
From the opening frames, Hiddleston throws all his dark allure into Williams’ songs, and swaggering performance style. And all of a sudden once-sweet lyrics like “Hey, hey, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?” smacked me in the face with their true meaning. EVERY ONE OF THESE SONGS IS ABOUT SEX! You may be rolling your eyes at my shock. But I’d never thought about Williams or his honky tonky hotness before, it took Hiddleston and his radiant sex bomb-ness to awaken me to this.
Hiddleston is divine as Williams. Not only does he nail the roguish charm of this hard-drinkin’ ladies man, but he also plums the pain—both physical and emotional—that plagued the country star through his too brief career. The English ingendude achieves an impressive Southern accent. His song performances are spirited, authentic, and moving. So why—despite early buzz out of the festival circuit—did this biopic’s release get bumped from the award season sweet spot of late November to the spring? You can probably prognosticate the answer: this movie is a dud.
Hiddleston’s great, and shares a curious and sizzling chemistry with Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his oft-nagging wife Audrey Mae Sheppard. But beyond this, the movie thuds along. feeling like a half-hearted history report on the wily Hank Williams. Written and directed by Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), I Saw The Light centers his story on Williams’ rise to fame and his tumultuous relationship with Sheppard. While there’s a lot of drama within this window—from personal and professional betrayals, to career highs, artistic experimentation, and substance abuse—there’s no drive that pulls the story along, or gives its scenes a strong connective tissue. Instead, the film starts unceremoniously at Williams’s and Sheppard’s impromptu wedding in a garage, skipping their introduction, seduction, blossoming romance, then hurls them into domestic drama, which bumbles into an abrupt end, and sad times title cards.
2015 was a year of underwhelming biopics about white folk overcoming adversity. Yet even among the likes of Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl and The Revenant, I Saw The Light was rightfully deemed weak. Aside from a handful of enchanting song performances, Hiddleston is just about the only reason to see this preening pic. Perhaps out of allegiance to its inspiration, Williams’s faults are downplayed as quirks of his country star lifestyle, be they affairs, violent outbursts, or a dangerous addiction. Worse, he is the only character who’s given compelling depth in the script.
Poor Olsen is left with just scraps of a shrill, talentless, fame-hungry wife who makes demands on Williams’s time, energy, money, and heart. Sometimes, I suspect we’re meant to empathize with her. But the film’s haphazard setup of her character makes Sheppard difficult to connect to for much of its runtime. Wrenn Schmidt fares better with the smaller role of Williams’s fun-loving fuck buddy Bobbie Jett, who relates to his reckless nature and needs nothing from him. A brief scene between the two on a dock was a moment of grace that hinted at a more complex and compelling biopic that might have been. Instead, we’re given one that boils down to “Marriage, amirite?”
In the final act, I Saw The Light goes off the rails, with character dialogue sloppily explaining plot points and time markers. Scraps of facts and anecdotes are crudely collected, making less a movie and more a showcase of Hiddleston’s talents, his charm, his sex appeal, his voice, his dramatic chops. So, even though it’s not good, this Hiddleston admirer ain’t mad at it.