Just as “the book was better” usually holds true when it comes to novelistic adaptations, most biographies are probably better read than watched. That’s certainly the case with I Saw the Light, which takes the stuff of Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen’s Hank Williams: The Biography and turns it into a frustratingly inert, determinedly rote musical biopic.
I Saw the Light has three things going for it: cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, Heat), its cast and Hank Williams’ songs. Even so, the last is compromised by Hiddleston performing his own vocals. The English actor does a commendable job at the mic, but he doesn’t capture the distinctive reediness in Williams’ southern-fried tenor (how ‘bout that yodeling, though?). The picture gets off to a shaky start with a faux black-and-white interview in 1953 Nashville. Williams’ producer and publisher Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) recalls, “He didn’t give a darn if you liked him or not,” and off we go to find out which it’ll be.
Amidst the mundane decorousness of 1940s detail, Marc Abraham’s film begins laying out the basics of Williams’ life, starting with his marriage at age 21 to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen). The marriage quickly becomes testy, exacerbated by Williams’ alcoholism, wandering eye, and insufficient interest in promoting Audrey’s mediocre singing. Abraham’s script never makes clear what drew these two to each other in the first place, a fatal error given how much of the drama hinges on the tension within this on-off-on-again relationship.
Worse, Abraham seems disinterested in Williams’ creative process, always defaulting to the final result of a performance in or out of the studio. Although we see him recording, we never see Williams writing. Williams himself demurs, “I write what I write, and I sing what I sing because that’s what I do,” and perhaps that ought to be enough of an explanation. Still, the closest Abraham gets to a coherent point of view on his subject is depicting Williams as a man-child who desperately wants a toy, then loses interest in it once he gets it. As laid out clunkily by the script, that’s the case both with Audrey (“I couldn’t see that fightin’ with you was better than being apart”) and the Holy Grail gig of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville (“It’s the Opry, Fred. It’s what I want. I always wanted it”).
The problem is that Abraham, even if he sees this much about Williams, can’t figure out what’s interesting about it, or anything else here. As a result, the film amounts to a string of recreated Williams songs (“Move It on Over,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) badly spackled to each other with the usual complement of joy (that first #1 hit, a baby) and pain (spinal bifida, divorce, career reversals). It’s all so dully realized that we grow starving for idiosyncratic detail, desperately latching on to Williams’ love of ketchup or his drunkenly being tickled pink by his new garage-door opener. This is not the stuff of powerful drama, I’m here to tell you.