Review: I Saw The Light


By Shannon Fox, @shannonfox


The “music biopic” is a difficult genre to get right.  Even if the actors are able to either successfully mimic the real-life subjects they’re portraying or make the role their own, the writing and directing have to both humanize the characters yet engage the audience while still remaining somewhat loyal to the actual story.  When the film’s subject is a widely-known household name, this challenge increases ten-fold.  Nevertheless, we’ve seen quite a few films in the past several years might and exceed this challenge: Straight Outta Compton is the most recent example.  Walk the Line is another.


In most of the cases, it’s an actor’s performance that permeates through, regardless of how the story is handled.  I Saw the Light is no different, led by two incredible performances by Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen.  Unfortunately, neither one is enough to save the film from its slow and strangely focused storyline.


I Saw the Light is about Hank Williams, a country music icon that died far too young from his addiction to drugs and alcohol.  His music catalog is impressive, with eleven number one hits.  He’s basically considered royalty among not only country music, but songwriters as well, which makes it all the stranger that the film barely focuses on his musical and songwriting achievements.  Instead, it delves into his personal life: his first marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) and its eventual combustion, his drug and alcohol use, his medical issues, and his further marriages and relationships later on, before dying at only 29 years old.


Hiddleston is so good that I have to resort to clichés to describe him: he’s an absolute revelation.  For a film that seems intent on reducing Williams to a drinkin’, cheatin’ country stereotype, he brings depth, humanity, and some serious singing talent to the role.  That’s right, Hiddleston does his own singing and even successfully tackles Williams’ trademark yodel.  Take a look:



He’s incredible, but it just made me yearn for more focus on Williams’ music career.  There are very few scenes here that ascend beyond Hiddleston trying his best to navigate out of flat direction and writing.  It almost seems as if the goal was to show the man behind the legend, but there’s not enough scenes that delve further into that territory.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a bright moment when Hiddleston sings “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but it’s too little, too late for a film that seems content to remain superficial.


Elizabeth Olsen also gives a great performance as Hank Williams’ first wife who wants a music career of her own but lacks the talent to get one.  In more capable hands, Olsen and Hiddleston would set the screen crackling with their chemistry and honest portrayals, but there’s only so much they can do here with such confusing and plodding direction and writing.


I was lucky enough to attend one of the showings in New York that had a short Q&A with Hiddleston afterwards.  He talked about his utter terror and nervousness about taking on such an iconic role (there were literal gasps of disbelief when some in the audience who hadn’t known him beforehand learned he was British), and his painstaking journey to recreate the songs with famous country musician Rodney Crowell, even moving into his house in Nashville.  Obviously, he put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this role, and that’s reflected onscreen.  I just wish he had been given better material for his performance.


I Saw the Light is worth a watch just for Hiddleston’s performance alone, but not for much more than that.


The film is out now in New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville, and will widen its release to other cities on April 1st.


Rating: 3 out of 5





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