Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The music biopic is a very familiar – and beloved – cinematic genre. THE ROSE, RAY, WALK THE LINE and the soon-to-be-released MILES AHEAD all have a similar thread: a star on the rise loses their career, spouse, house and luxury goods to hard partyin’ and excess. This traditional story arc has even been lampooned perfectly in WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY [Editor’s side note: You don’t want no part of this shit! Get out of here!]. What really sets a film in this genre apart is how the filmmakers can disguise the formula. Director Marc Abraham’s I SAW THE LIGHT, about country singer-songwriter Hank Williams, is one of those different kinds of music biopics. However, it stands out for all the wrong reasons. Feeling like a rough assembly of the deleted scenes of the film we should be watching, it’s mind-numbingly flat and passionless – which is odd given everyone did their homework and seemed excited to bring this story to the silver screen.
Though we’re spared the cradle portion of Williams’ life, we do see his tumultuous twenties play out until his untimely death at age 29. We glimpse the love and lightning of his relationship with wife/ frequent muse Audrey (played by the incandescent Elizabeth Olsen). We witness Hank drink, philander, sing, read music charts and show up to gigs sloshed. But we never see him write. What was it that finally got him into The Grand Ole Opry? Despite Hiddleston’s strong work portraying an American icon, the demons Hank wrestles with never materialize in any way.
Listen, I’m not doubting the accuracy that seeps from this film’s pores. However, context would be preferable to the messy confusion within. It takes great pains to avoid exposition – so much so there’s absolutely no setting or motivation behind each of the sequences. Why are these dates and circumstances pivotal, and what force do they play in Williams’ life? The audience is left to infer a lot. In fact, the press kit for this film is more informative than the actual film – a travesty indeed.
Relationships between the characters – and our feelings towards them – play a huge unspoken part. The film holds us at arm’s length, and we never reach a point of caring about these people and their problems. Despite being bathed in cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s warm glow, the material leaves the audience cold. Williams’ motivations are barely formed and the people who surround him are one-dimensional at best. Secondary and tertiary characters – like his bossy mother (Cherry Jones), manager Fred (Bradley Whitford) and bandmates – float in and out with no time to appreciate any meaning of the scenes shared with Hiddleston. We can empathize, but it doesn’t transform into much more. With relatively no concrete, compelling connection between the characters, why should we bother to connect to them?
The most problematic thing about Abraham’s film is that we don’t ever get a sense of this iconic and influential figure in the spotlight. I know just as much about Williams coming out of this film as I did going into it – which is to say not much. There’s no gas in the material’s engine. Not only is the wrap around device – the black and white interviews with Fred – inconsistent and unhelpful, it hinders the narrative drive. The way the story is piecemealed together is confusing and muddled. This is a man who had 36 number one records and we never get a sense of this – we hear him talk about maybe two of them. We are forced to rely on dialogue that tells us what’s happening.
While there’s a lot going wrong, one thing I can’t complain about is the ensemble Abraham’s assembled. They are spectacular, raising the material from lackluster to tolerable. Hiddleston’s role is a physically transformative one (I dare you not to get goosebumps during that opening shot), but a lot of talk will fairly be granted to Olsen, who turns in a solid performance, adding pathos and vulnerability. In Wrenn Schmidt’s very brief screen time, playing one of Williams’ post divorce dalliances, she manages to completely outshine screen partner Hiddleston – a feat given this is T. Hidds we’re talking about. Mark my words: that girl is a star on the rise.
In the right hands, Williams’ story, and Hiddleston’s performance in that story, would have been a mesmerizing, engaging and compelling cinematic experience. But with ham-handed direction and poorly adapted material, it’s no wonder this venture doesn’t add up to a hill of beans.
I SAW THE LIGHT opens on March 25 in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in wide release on April 1.
Photo credits: Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen in I SAW THE LIGHT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.