Review: Tom Hiddleston sings but can’t save shockingly bad ‘I Saw The Light’

TORONTO – We”re not going to beat around the bush here.  Despite the worthy efforts of stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw The Light” is a shockingly bad movie.  It”s such a disappointment we”re not even sure where to begin.  Well, perhaps a quick history lesson is in order first.

Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) was a legendary Country music singer and songwriter who had 11 no. 1 singles on the Billboard Country and Western Charts during a career that lasted only six years.  The Alabama native first hit the charts in 1947 and actually had one of his biggest hits, “Your Cheatin” Heart,” following his untimely death in 1953.  He was just 29-years-old.  In the decades since his music has influenced icons such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Keith Richards, among others.  

Let's continue, shall we?

He was married twice, first to Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), the mother of his son Hank Williams, Jr. (a popular Country artist in his own right) and then to Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar (Maddie Hasson).  He had addiction issues with alcohol and painkillers (some of which was a byproduct of his lifelong battle with spina bifida).  Oh, and he was a notorious philanderer.  Barely any of these simple aspects of Williams' life is explained coherently in “Light,” and writer and director Marc Abraham is clearly to blame.

Abraham, who showed true directorial skill with the underrated 2008 drama “Flash of Genius,” is simply in over his head here.  His screenplay partially denotes scenes by specific dates and locations, but rarely gives them any context.  The filmmaker just drops in vignettes from Williams” life in chronological order one after the other.  You don”t know what inspired Williams to become a musician or when he first put a band together.  We”re not even sure if Williams enjoys writing music.  In Abraham”s view, Williams has three life goals: to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry, hook up with beautiful women and to minimize the back pain symptomatic of his spina bifida.  That”s really it (at least in Abraham's view).

At one point, at the height of his popularity (we have to assume this because the movie rarely lets us know just how famous Williams has become until the end of the flick), he flies with his manager* Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) to Hollywood for a meeting with MGM.  The studio wants to make Williams a leading man and showcase his talents on the big screen.  The gist of the sit down is that the Country crooner has an awkward interaction with MGM president Dore Schary (Josh Pais) because he refuses to take his hat off.  You never learn whether the project went forward which makes the point of the scene puzzling and pretty pointless in context (spoiler: the movie never happened).  Was this just included to tell us that Williams had issues with taking his hat off?

*Another assumption the audience has to make. Rose actually started the music publishing company Williams was a part of. If you watch the movie you”ll assume he”s his manager.  That really wasn”t the case.

Another example of Abraham”s weak narrative occurs relatively early on in the film.  The audience isn”t aware that Williams has any sort of addiction problem (Audrey has called him out for cheating, but that”s really it).  The image cuts to a hallway in some sort of medical facility.  It then cuts to a two-bed institution or hospital room of some kind where Williams is coming off something.  The next scene finds him appearing normal, dressed up and checking out of the facility.  He tells the checkout nurse he”ll never be back here again, she says something along the lines of “I hope not” and he walks out the door.  Abraham never makes it clear what prompted Williams” stay or what he was actually battling.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Awkward sequences continually flood the movie and the viewer has to make one assumption after another just to understand what”s happening.

One of Abraham”s most shocking decisions, however, was to include so little music in the film itself.  On the one hand, holding the film”s title track until the end of the movie makes sense historically and is a clear artistic choice.  The mistake is that unless you”re a fan of Williams before you enter the theater the performance of that song will not have the emotional resonance it should because you”ve never heard him sing it.  The bigger problem is that outside of a handful of Williams live performances (wonderfully sung by Hiddleston) there is almost no other music in the movie.  More shocking is the fact there is rarely realistic ambient sound in scenes that obviously call for it. This is literally the quietest music biopic ever made and it contributes to the lack of energy driving the narrative.

You have to feel sorry for Hiddleston because he was up for the challenge.  The English actor has a fine singing voice that approximates Williams” signature style better than you”d expect. He”s also committed to trying to portray the flaws in his character”s persona, but he can”t escape Abraham”s often-awkward staging and the scripts inherent shortcomings.  Some of the film”s few sparks of life come when Hiddleston and Olsen are on screen together.  When Audry leaves the story about halfway through you realize how much the duo”s sparkling chemistry was keeping the movie afloat.

No critic wants to harp on a terrible flick.  You could probably write a 100-page thesis paper about how bad “Light” is.   If that makes you curious enough there are worse things than watching Hiddleston do his best to wade through this mess.  But, that still ignores the larger issue: Hank Williams deserves to have his story told with the same creativity and soul he infused his songs with.  “I Saw The Light” is absolutely not that movie.

“I Saw The Light” is currently scheduled to open in limited release on Nov. 27.