It's still a little early yet, but I Saw the Light is positioned to be one of the year's bigger cinematic disappointments.
The film is an ultimate downer because it contains a powerful central performance from Tom Hiddleston as country music legend Hank Williams. Hiddleston looks, and more importantly, sounds the part, performing live with a strong singing voice and stage persona. When I Saw the Light focuses on live music and studio performances of Williams's standards, it shines.
It's when the film examines his life between the songs that it is a dull, unrewarding experience. Yes, anybody who knows a little bit about the man knows he died tragically young (29) of alcohol and drug related complications, and that he had a messed up love life. Come on, though, this is Hank Williams. It's hard to accept his life was as dull and humorless as writer-director Marc Abraham's film suggests. Yes, his end was tragic, but the guy must've had a sense of humor.
The movie picks up before Williams gets his big break. He's performing his original songs on a radio show and marrying newly divorced singer wannabe, Audrey Mae Sheppard (a strong Elizabeth Olsen). Williams toils away in honkytonks and tries to make his mark at the Grand Ole Opry, where they are a bit resistant to Williams's reputation.
Of course, Williams does eventually make his Opry debut, and it's during moments like this and other microphone commanding performances that Hiddleston captures the spirit of the singer and gives us a hint of his justifiable legacy.
It's the love life stuff that is treated with a morose, dark, clammy tone that makes the film often a task to watch, and it way overstays its welcome at two-plus hours.
On top of his failed marriage to Sheppard, we witness his dalliances with random women, and his eventual last wife, Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson). The time spent with Sheppard does feature a decent performance from Olsen. She does an admirable job doing her own singing, purposefully mediocre as Sheppard suffered industry ridicule for her voice. When Olsen basically leaves the film, the female lead baton is passed to Hasson, and her main directorial instruction seems to be "pout and scowl a lot." Her presence brings the film to a halt.
Again, the music in the film is strong. The movie opens with a nice, solo performance of "Cold, Cold Heart," with Hiddleston alone in a smoky room as the camera circles him. His voice is strong and contains the proper amount of emotional heft. It's a moment that seems to be setting the film up for good times.
Then, the film effectively goes to sleep. Abraham saddles the film with long, dreary takes where actors and actresses often seem a bit lost. They've also seemingly been instructed to use sleepy tones and volumes, so that so many line deliverances give off the impression that they are bored with the material.
Williams must've raised some hell in his day. He must've played some pranks on band members, or trashed a couple of hotel rooms. He probably also shouted out a joke or two to provide life with some laughter.
None of that makes it into I Saw the Light. Hiddleston is asked to play the man as a dull ghost rather than a robust, flawed legend. When he's singing, the movie has life. When he's arguing with his mom, it's dreadful.
Abraham relies on some of your basic biopic no-nos to move the story along, including the old fake black and white newsreel interview gimmick. That's when you put an actor in a fake interview setting and make it look like a newsreel to give the film authenticity. It's just proof that the writer was stuck and needed to cheat his way out of self-induced plot ditches.
Tracks like "Lovesick Blues," "Honky Tonkin'" and other Williams classics provide interesting interludes, but I Saw the Light will be remembered more for its dullness rather than its musical numbers.