The recent biopics of jazz musicians Chet Baker and Miles Davis (haven’t seen it yet) have been dinged for being impressionistic, improvisational, jazzy and showing only a limited period of their subject’s lives, in the case of Miles Ahead, 1979. With I Saw the Light (trailer), about country music legend Hank Williams, written and directed by Marc Abraham, we see the perils of the conventional treatment.
It’s a too familiar formula. Although this one skips over the difficult childhood and lacks the manager-as-ripoff-artist, we do have the rocky rise to stardom, wild success with 36 Top Ten singles, the lure of alcohol, drugs and dames, and missed shots at redemption—the whole gloomy self-destructive spiral. Truthfully, because Hank Williams died at age 29, his didn’t really have much chance to have a significant story arc to his life, which suggests something other than a chronology might have worked better. Instead, we have a movie that critic J. Olson says is “flatter than a silver dollar pancake.”
That fundamental problem is not redeemed by top-notch acting and the music. Tom Hiddleston (a Brit, no less) is a believable Williams—charming, uninterested in what people think of him (maybe he should have been)—and Hiddleston sings all the songs, which apparently were filmed live. Elizabeth Olsen is his wife Audrey Mae, tired of watching him lose the struggle with his demons and miffed he doesn’t support her singing career. She’s cute, but she’s a truly awful singer. Bradley Whitford plays Williams’s supportive manager, Fred Rose, and the guys in Hank’s band seem like the real thing, too.
Williams had a congenital back problem—a mild form of spina bifida—that may have made him prone to injuries. In any case, the injuries sure contributed to the development of chronic back pain, which explains that slight waist-bend in the movie posters, and exposed Williams to all the hazards associated with self-medication.
If you love country music, you’ll enjoy this film, even though you know the ending. If you’re not a fan, you know the ending too. This film makes the efforts to break out of the mold in the Baker and Davis films that much more appreciated.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 19%; audiences, 51%.