I Saw the Light isn't a poorly-crafted movie, exactly, but I can't help but feel a certain measure of resentfulness towards it. There isn't a single moment in the film's 124-minute running time that feels fresh or unique. This movie is the very definition of a standard-issue musical biopic, hitting every formulaic beat with such predictability that you half-expect Dewey Cox to turn up at any moment.
One of the core problems with this particular sub-genre is that a lot of famous musicians basically have the same sort of life story: they follow their passion, they find success, they succumb to some sort of addiction. Then, they either triumphantly overcome their struggles or they die young. The soundtracks may be different, but the story rarely changes. There's a reason for that, of course: fame and the music industry are what they are. Still, too many filmmakers fail to bring a unique perspective to this template.
This version of that oft-told story spotlights the life of country music legend Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), who falls into the “they die young” category (he was killed in a tragic car accident at the age of 29). It begins in 1944, as Hank gets married to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen, The Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a humble Texaco station. Hank was just an ordinary local musician then, but quickly begins traveling the road to stardom. In the early scenes, we get occasional glimpses of Hank flirting with other women and nursing a flask: signs of drama to come.
Hiddleston and Olsen are both talented, but the fact that they're working so hard to keep their twangy accents from faltering make the performances feel fundamentally artificial: the accents aren't bad, just forced. The same goes for the film as a whole, which almost never manages to find a way to make its box-ticking developments feel organic. See Hank get drunk. See Hank have an affair. See Hank get divorced. See Hank miss a scheduled performance. See Hank try to win Audrey back. See Hank move in with Ray Price. See Hank turn down a movie career. See Hank move on to other women. This stuff actually happened, but it feels as if the film is just dutifully, competently copying and pasting biographical details.
The director is Marc Abraham, a seasoned producer whose only other directorial effort is the 2008 Greg Kinnear vehicle Flash of Genius. Like that movie, I Saw the Light has a handsome, muted, too-polished-to-be-convincing aesthetic. There are so many little spot-on period details, but the world doesn't quite feel lived-in. Adding to this “wax museum” quality is the dialogue, which often feels like a series of overwritten, carefully arranged declarations. It's pretty, but it doesn't quite sound real.
Still, Hiddleston deserves credit for opting to underplay his most dramatic moments. He never really tries to “play drunk,” though it's never hard to tell when the character is supposed to be inebriated. When Hank gets mean (which he does with increasing regularity), you sense that he regrets much of what he's saying even as he's saying it (particularly when talking to Audrey or one of his other love interests). Every now and then, you see a spark of a genuinely interesting movie.
The music is solid, of course, but even this manages to feel a little forced after a while. On multiple occasions, Hank performs slower, more melancholy versions of songs we're familiar with, because the movie needs something somber enough to match its downbeat tone. Williams wrote a lot of breezy tunes that are built around a core of deep sadness, but the film seems a little uncomfortable with the “breezy” part. At one point, Hank is asked to describe his music. “It's sincere,” he says. “There ain't nothing phony.” I wish I could say the same about this film.
I Saw the Light
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Year: 2016