I Saw the Light full movie review - "I Saw the Light" sheds precious little light on its fascinating and flawed subject.
There are many ways to make a biographical motion picture, or biopic, but most of the possibilities seem to line up with one of three basic approaches.
(1) Go into depth regarding the subject's character by focusing on one or a very few key incidents in the person's life, which we saw in "Hitchcock" (2012), "Lincoln" (2012), "Selma" (2014), "Steve Jobs" (2015) and "The Revenant" (2015). (2) Tell the part of story that makes him or her most compelling by concentrating on a relatively narrow period in his or her life, as with "42" (2013) "American Sniper" (2014), "The Danish Girl" (2015), "Trumbo" (2015) and "Race" (2016). (3) Portray the individual's life story by carefully selecting a limited number of incidents or time periods that illustrate the entire arc of that person's life, as in "J. Edgar" (2011), "The Iron Lady" (2012), "Lee Daniel's The Butler" (2013), "The Imitation Game" (2014) and "Pawn Sacrifice" (2015). One 2016 biopic, "I Saw the Light" (R, 2:03), takes approach #2, telling the story of Hank Williams in his 20s.
A slimmed-down Tom Hiddleston plays the legendary country singer during the period from December 15, 1944 until January 1, 1953. It's during these years that he attained major success, enjoyed it for a while and then squandered it. This particular stretch of time also matches almost exactly with his marriage to wannabe country singer, Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen). As Hank was becoming more popular and more famous, Audrey insisted on singing duets with Hank, both on the radio and on stage, in spite of her lack of discernible talent. This ongoing problem caused stress between Hank and his band, "The Drifting Cowboys", and between Hank and Audrey. Hank's problems were also constantly exacerbated by his judgmental and meddling mother and erstwhile manager, Lilli (Cherry Jones). Other aspects of Williams' family life that we see include his relationship with his kids, especially Hank Jr.
Of course, this movie is mainly about Hank Williams' success and influence as a musician. Part of that story is told through simulated interview clips with record producer Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), who also appears in several scenes during Williams' rise to fame. The film gives indications of his increasing popularity and we hear at least part of Williams' most popular songs. Ongoing themes include his hard-won (and later, tumultuous) relationship with the Grand Ole Opry, along with the chronic back pain, drug abuse, alcoholism and womanizing which held him back from even greater heights within the country music community ? and greater peace and happiness in his life. The film shows Williams for who he was, warts and all, but sheds precious little light on the inspiration for his music, which should have been the film's main purpose. You would think that a movie called "I Saw the Light" would make some things clearer ? including William's deep Christian faith which led him to write the film's title song.
"I Saw the Light" feels incomplete, not because of the relatively narrow period of Williams' life that the filmmakers chose to highlight, but because what is shown is simply underdeveloped. Movie Fans who are only marginally familiar with Hank Williams will learn a lot and probably enjoy seeing the interesting story of his time as a famous country singer unfold on screen. Unfortunately, those people will probably end the movie frustrated with the questions the film raises, while Hank Williams fans will likely be dissatisfied by the obvious gaps in the story. Steven Spielberg could get away with that in "Lincoln", but Hank Williams' story isn't quite as well-known as that of our 16th President. Key events and references in writer-director Marc Abraham's script go unexplained ("Louisiana Stampede"?) and his direction doesn't let us see the full range of emotions that must have accompanied some of the situations in this film.
In a biopic, quality performances are especially crucial. Hiddleston and Olsen both do strong work, but the favorable comparison between Hiddleston's Williams and Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn in 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter" is a stretch. Hiddleston does his own singing, which is serviceable, but it has been publicly criticized by some, including Hank Williams III. Olsen's role fits her like a glove and Hiddleston seems very comfortable in his role, but can't quite muster the deep-seated southern sensibility which typified the real Hank Williams. Sadly, with an under-written script, inconsistent direction and solid, but unremarkable acting all Movie Fans have here is an average biopic of a flawed but exceptional man. "B-"