At the heart of Marc Abraham’s wayward Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light is an exceptional performance — and impersonation — by Tom Hiddleston as Williams. It might be fairer to say that he’s as exceptional as the film allows him to be. Therein lies the problem. The film hinders him at every turn, thanks to a screenplay by director Abraham that almost single-handedly redefines choppy. I honestly cannot recall a screenplay that jumps around as much this one and makes such a complete hash of any sense of narrative. What makes this wholly mystifying is that there’s nothing wrong with Abrahams’ direction. The problem is what he’s given himself to work with. The film feels quite authentic to period and place, and there’s no denying it’s solidly crafted. But it’s also stupefyingly flat. The biopic is a much disdained genre, and movies like this are why.
It’s difficult to cite just what Abraham’s intent was here, but the problems become apparent early on when Williams is labeled as a cheating husband, without presenting much evidence to support this. We are apparently just supposed to accept it and move on to the next episodic point in what passes for a narrative. The theory seems to have been this: If major developments were left on the floor, cutting to black-and-white footage of recreations of people who knew and worked with Williams would smooth it over by telling the story that the movie itself is incapable of relaying. Problem is, it doesn’t. Even if it did, we’d still be trapped in a movie where major events take place offscreen, while not much takes place onscreen. It is possible to kill off your subject offscreen to dramatic effect, but I Saw the Light manages to make it sound like he was killed in a car wreck (the film has also built up this possibility), only to explain what really happened in one of those ending wrapups.
I Saw the Light is riddled with this kind of thing. At first, no one seems fazed by the quality (or lack thereof) of Williams’ wife Audrey’s (a very good Elizabeth Olsen) singing. Then, suddenly, she’s awful. The band gets fed up with Williams’ ego, drinking and lateness, grumbling about how all his songs are simple, in one scene, are mildly truculent in the next and then one big happy family in the next. There’s a creepy undercurrent to Williams’ mother (Cherry Jones), but, apart from driving an even greater wedge between Williams and Audrey, it’s never developed.
Too much of the film consists of underdeveloped dramatic encounters and queerly truncated musical numbers. The latter is especially perplexing. Hiddleston does such a credible job of singing Williams’ greatest hits it makes no sense to cut them short — but all too often that’s what happens. And, goodness knows, the musical numbers outshine the drama at every turn. It’s not as if there is much story to get back to, just a loosely connected series of events. There’s no spine to the Hank Williams of the screenplay. This isn’t a “warts and all” biography. It’s more a case of “some warts and not much else.”
The amazing thing is that schlock producer Sam Katzman made a more persuasive Williams biopic (with George Hamilton in the lead and Hank Williams Jr. providing the vocals) in 1964. It was biopic basic. The acting was mostly no great shakes. It was cheap and boasted little sense of period. But at least it managed to tell a coherent — if simplified and cleaned-up — story. That’s something Abraham, thanks to the botched script, doesn’t manage even with better acting, more budget and, yes, better directing. All that to one side, I Saw the Light is at least close to worth catching for Tom Hiddleston. Rated R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity.