I Saw the Light (and You've Seen This Film Before)

Directed by Marc Abraham
Sony Pictures, 123 minutes, R (for little apparent reason)

Neil Young once responded to a critic charging him with redundancy with the tart rejoinder, "It's all the same song." Young's was the last music memoir I read and I don't plan to pick up another. They are, in fact, all the same song. I wish Hollywood would get the message. I recently caught the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light on video and, to invoke a Williams song, my take on this and all future plans for features on famed musicians is: "Why Should We Try Anymore?"

Musician biographies are like Legos: snap out a blue block and stick in a red one. You can write your own by following this oh-so-familiar arc. Begin with a person obsessed by music and add an ambitious alter ego (mother, agent, producer). Cut to how the musician pays his or her dues in rough conditions (road house, honky tonk, sleazy club), contemplates giving up, but catches a break. Cue to the rise to fame, but a path strewn with obstacles (bad relationships, con jobs, physical challenges). Segue to substance abuse (booze, drugs, both), and salt with disillusionment (from others or internal). The last provides the sole opportunity for narrative departure, though there are really just three options: self-destruction, sobriety, or reinvention. End with a funeral, a chastened testimonial, or a triumphant return. 

Hiram "Hank" Williams (1923-53) is certainly one of the most important songwriters in country and western history. He was an Alabama-raised product of the days in which country music was unabashedly corny and heartbreak was a song staple. In a brief career (just 1938 to early 1953), Williams landed an astonishing thrity-five songs on the country Top Ten list, eleven of which went to number one. Who doesn't know songs like "Hey Good Lookin'," "Your Cheatin' Heart," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry?" He was dead at twenty-nine—just missing the infamous 27 Club–after two marriages and as much alcohol and drug abuse as a human body could take. Short lives such as his don't provide a lot of biographical detail, another reason why music biopics are so generic.

I Saw the Light, inexpertly directed by Marc Abraham, adopts a tone that's something Williams never was: flat. British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and did his own singing. He's okay, though his singing is akin to the way a lot of English actors do American accents: precisely, but without emotion or soul. His best effect is using his beanpole frame to embody the physical deterioration of a man in his late twenties who looks like he's on the wrong side of fifty. We might not notice Hiddleston's middle range vocals so much had the script had contained something other than the formula outlined in the second paragraph. Alas, we wtiness young Hiram deciding to become "Hank" because it sounded more authentic whilst being encouraged by his enabling mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Then on to honky tonk bar fights, play-for-little-pay local radio, and chasing the dream of playing the Grand Ole Opry—which everyone knows he will, or there's no film to be made. Then a rival muse, his first wife Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen), and a downward spiral of booze, divorce, an inappropriate marriage to 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), tragedy, and posthumous remembrances. Olsen is okay in her role, though she doesn't have much to do except whine, so let's add Hollywood's gender blinders to the list of this film's woes. (For the record, Sheppard was considered a better singer than Abraham would have us believe—not great, but competent.)

I could go on, but by now you've probably seen the light. This film bombed at the box office, gathered tepid reviews, and went to video before it even opened at a mall near me. If you don't remember (or know) Hank Williams, you should (re) educate yourself, but YouTube is a far better bet than this stale slice of cornpone.

Rob Weir

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