In the movie I Saw the Light, Hank Williams drunkenly explains to a reporter that everyone has a darkness in them. For me, that was one of the bright spots of a movie that fell flat and never found its hook.
Hank Williams was one of the all-time great American singer-songwriters of the 20th century. In his short 29 years, he recorded dozens of singles, many of which were Billboard top sellers. He also released songs under the name “Luke the Drifter,” which were recitations of stories about the trials of life, oftentimes with a religious theme. Even if you aren’t a country music fan, you probably are familiar with his catchy recordings such as “Hey, Good Lookin’” and this movie’s namesake, “I Saw the Light.”
Unfortunately the movie doesn’t stack up to Williams’ music and his life story. The film begins when Williams’ (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston, career is still in its infancy. He’s making a go of it, but it’s apparent that he drinks way too much. His wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) — an aspiring musician herself — manages Hank’s career as he struggles with alcoholism, infidelity and severe back pain caused by spina bifida. Despite his troubles, he achieves his goal of joining the Grand Ole Opry.
I Saw the Light is based on the book Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen. The movie is a chronological biopic that fails to unearth the darkness that seemed to consume Williams. It is anchored too much on events seemingly arbitrary to casual fans — an awkwardly planned documentation of his life rather than a good story. As it stands, Williams was a young, drunk boy who enjoyed the ladies and made great music. Jim Morrison of The Doors was more interesting than that.
This is not to say a story wasn’t there. There’s plenty of material in Williams’ life to make a movie that could rival even Walk the Line, the Academy Award-winning biographical drama about Johnny Cash. I was interested in learning more about the songs released under “Luke the Drifter.” I was interested in Williams’ creative inspiration, his process, and his evolution as a musician. Audrey, despite a decent performance by Olsen, is an underdeveloped character, as well; you don’t know if she really loved Hank and you don’t really care. And for a movie about a musician, the music isn’t all that great.
Nevertheless, you’ll like the movie if you’re a fan of Williams and know his story. There is indeed something satisfying about seeing a story you know well on the silver screen. As a fan of American history, music and movies, I left the theater convinced I Saw the Light should’ve been a lot better.
I Saw the Light is available beginning July 5 on Video On Demand. Check your cable system for availability.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Credit: Sam Emerson