TIFF 2015 Review | Nothing is Illuminated in ‘I Saw the Light’ 

Country legend Hank Williams died the year President Eisenhower took office, so there’s at least one generation, if not two, in need of an introduction to one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the twentieth century. Regrettably, the new biopic about Williams does little enlighten audiences on either the musician or the myth. Instead, I Saw the Light is a broad-stroked portrait of addiction — to alcohol, to women, to spending — that amounts to little more than self-destruction porn. 

At least writer-director Marc Abraham spares us a few musical-biopic tropes, like the dutiful, long-suffering wife and the too-neat explanations of how certain masterpieces came into being. The best element of I Saw the Light is the brief marriage between 23-year-old Hank (Tom Hiddleston, reliably great) and divorced single mom Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen, holding her own), both aspiring stars. Unlike Hank, though, Audrey’s musical ambitions far outstrip her talent — a state of affairs that make for a fascinating interplay between conflicting personal and professional expectations (i.e. each spouse wants more career and emotional support from the other than he or she is getting), even if the film never realizes the full dramatic potential of that always-fraying union. 

I Saw the Light traces the singer’s six-year career, which ended with Williams’ death in 1953 at the age of 29. There’s a lot of suffering during that half-decade: Hank’s divorce from Audrey (after which the film loses much of its life force), his chronic spinal pain, his dependence on alcohol and painkillers, and his demanding schedule at the Grand Ole Opry concert series, a dream gig he constantly endangers by failing to show up to work. When an interviewer asks Hank where he comes up with the inspiration for, say, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or “Hey, Good Lookin’,” he shrugs, “I write what I write, and I sing what I sing.” The film is similarly unreflective, expecting us to care about Hank simply because he’s forced to endure so much. 

There are flashes of what could have been. Hiddleston’s eyes soften and sparkle whenever Hank’s on the stage, always elated by the crowds that come to hear him, even if other musicians snicker at the simplicity of his music. Hank loses himself in a great monologue about how his songs allow his listeners to process the anger and sadness in their lives — then leave those emotions in the theater so they can rest easy at home. To my unversed-in-Nashville ears, Hiddleston acquits himself with his crooning, if not always with his Southern accent.

The singer’s very visage is an intriguing curiosity: lanky as a bendy straw, an excitable young man in a fashionably somber double-breasted suit, an extravagant profligate who always evoked his rural Alabaman background with his signature cowboy hat. Hank Williams gave the world his voice, but I Saw the Light silences him into a spectacle of agony.

Images via Sony Classics

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