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‘I Saw the Light’ is the Music Biopic ‘Walk Hard’ Warned You About (Review)

'I Saw the Light' is the Music Biopic 'Walk Hard' Warned You About (Review)

Hank Williams often had the occasion to croon a lot of mournful songs, but none of them convey the tragedy of Marc Abraham’s miscalculated biopic about the singer’s brief and painful life. It doesn’t help that “I Saw the Light” – originally pushed back from an awards-friendly release date of November 28 – is now opening just a week before Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead,” an ambitious (if not always successful) tone poem that seeks to capture Miles Davis’ essence, not a year-by-year breakdown of his life. While “Miles Ahead” tries something very different than the traditional musician biopic, rejecting notions like linear timelines and exposition-heavy speeches, “I Saw the Light” plays its story so straight that it leaves little room for both cinematic creativity or a moving story about a man compelled by his art and his troubles in equal measure.

Abraham’s film, which smartly (though the choice was initially met with some controversy) cast Tom Hiddleston as its leading man, is loaded up with some of the worst tics and tropes a modern biopic about a tortured musician can offer its audience: It leans heavily on paint-by-the-numbers exposition and clumsily delivered vignettes seemingly ripped from the satirist script of “Walk Hard.” Most of Hiddleston’s stellar performance is almost wholly obscured, robbing the film of the best thing it has to offer — a leading man who seems invested in the material. That investment, however, cannot transcend a script that zips through Williams’ life with all the grace of a Wikipedia article and direction that flattens even the most exciting of musical performances. 

Hiddleston notably bulked up his musical prowess and singing ability in order to play Williams in the film, and though he doesn’t quite capture the country crooner’s distinctive twang, his on-stage performances are the highlight of an otherwise flat feature. Strange then that Abraham – a super-producer who has previously helmed just one other film, the Greg Kinnear-starring “Flash of Genius,” about the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, hardly a topic as sexy as the life of a troubled musician – frequently cuts short Hiddleston’s singin’ and scootin’ turns behind the camera.
Instead, the director hands over the bulk of the film’s action to the kind of standard troubles we’ve seen plenty of times before in far better biopics. The film may check off all the boxes of a musician-centric biopic, but that doesn’t mean it ever connects the dots to tell a full-bodied story worth cawing about.

The central problem with “I Saw the Light” is that Abraham (who also wrote the film’s script, as inspired by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen’s book “Hank Williams: The Biography”) seems to think that problems equal personality. The film fails to give a foundation to Williams’ copious troubles – with fidelity and fighting, drinks and dames – instead letting them pile up around a clearly (though inexplicably) damaged Williams as the film winds on. Williams’ life was surely a fraught one (that he died at age 29 should be fodder enough for a compelling film, so too could the spinal disease that kept him in pain for most his life), but “I Saw the Light” is less concerned with the meaning and reason behind them, versus the drama and trauma of letting people scream at each other about various injustices. 
The film assembles itself loosely around the relationship between Hank and his first wife Audrey Mae (played by Elizabeth Olsen, who searches for real soul when the film doesn’t have her screaming at Hank for one of his many transgressions). As Hank rises up in the musical ranks, his relationship with Audrey Mae, initially played as appealingly sexy and hot-blooded, falls apart, thanks to a well-tread and low-energy path audiences will see coming from a country mile away.

Williams’ life is short enough that a biopic could easily encompass most of his greatest hits, from his street performances to his popular radio show to the realization of his long-held dream to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, but Abraham hammers away at his personal problems (without much heart), stripping the film of Hiddleston’s best work and any kind of genuine passion.
“I Saw the Light” doesn’t even make it clear why Williams so loved singing, skipping over his early days to spend more time watching the whole thing crumble. It’s the kind of outdated and uncreative biopic filmmaking that Jake Kasdan’s “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” so deftly skewered back in 2007. “I Saw the Light” is precisely the kind of film that the parody sent up and even warned against. If musical biopics were flat and uninspired nearly a decade ago, the majority of them are still worse now, and “I Saw the Light” is certainly the most disappointing of the current batch.

The film even verges into something far closer to parody than was likely Abraham’s intent, particularly when it comes to a hammy series of talking head interviews meant to approximate documentary style. Distracting and poorly put together, they hobble the film’s already rickety storytelling and narrative flow. They also add to the sense that Abraham was unsure of how to craft a compelling film about a man who doesn’t need any tricks to make him interesting. “I Saw the Light” doesn’t just fail to illuminate Williams’ complicated life and his prodigious talent; it can’t even capture the dark corners of a man with more than enough to peer into.

Grade: D

“I Saw the Light” hits theaters in limited release on Friday, March 25.

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