July 2, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: I SAW THE LIGHT

Starring Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olson, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt. Directed by Marc Abraham. (2015, 124 min).

I'll give Tom Hiddleston this much...for a guy whose initial casting raised some skeptical eyebrows, he totally nails the role. Looking, speaking, moving and even singing uncannily like Hank Williams, this is a masterful performance. It's a shame all that hard work and dedication is wasted on such a lifeless, middling film as I Saw the Light.

As much as I personally detest country and rap music, both Coal Miner's Daughter and Straight Outta Compton are incredibly entertaining music biographies. That's because the best ones extend beyond the music to, not only make us appreciate their subjects' musical and cultural impact, but turn them into interesting, dynamic characters. One would think that a legend like Hank Williams, who lived fast, died young and left a bad looking corpse, would be foolproof bio fodder.

But in I Saw the Light, we don't really gain much insight into what made Williams tick. As the film begins, he's already a raging alcoholic, in a tumultuous marriage with Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) and well on his way to getting his first big musical break. Aside from a few casual remarks from his overbearing mother (Cherry Jones), we get no background of his upbringing or when he discovered his gifts as a singer/songwriter. Not even posthumous interviews with longtime manager Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) tell us much that isn’t already common knowledge about Hank’s life and career.

"Geez, Hank...even my kid can play 'Smoke on the Water'."

The film is also narratively plodding, with no defining highs or lows and little transition from one key moment to the next. It’s just a patchwork checklist of events, troubled relationships and a few musical performances before ending with Williams’ death in 1953 at the age of 29. With the exception of a wonderful moment when Williams finally achieves his lifelong goal by taking the stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, it's never adequately shown how (or why) this man went on to influence countless other country and rock artists.

Despite Hiddleston’s obvious dedication to the role, he’s betrayed by a screenplay that renders Williams a static character throughout the entire film, and not particularly likeable. While presenting him as an egotistical narcissist isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, a good biography would have at-least shown us how he ended up that way.

Surely a figure as revered as Hank Williams deserves a deeper, more comprehensive life story, but even Wikipedia provides more insight about the man than this film does. Hiddleston’s amazing performance might be enough to make I Saw the Light worth checking out one time, but fans of Williams’ and his music will be better served by giving one of his old records a spin.

  • Featurettes: "Talking Hank" (with Hiddleston and Rodney Crowell); "Illuminating a Legend: Inside I Saw the Light"; "A Night in Nashville: Premiere & Musical Performance by Tom Hiddleston"
  • Audio Commentary by the Director
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Digital Copy

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