Maybe this film will recruit new members for the church of Williams, even if it isn’t able to successfully preach to the choir.
Being an elitist film critic, I often find myself as the one person in a group who doesn’t like whatever movie we’ve all just watched. But when I Saw the Light ran at the St. Louis International Film Festival last November, I found myself on the other side of the fence from what is the norm for me—I saw the film with my mother and one of my best friends, and of the three of us, I was the only one that liked it.
Now is a good time to point out that of the three of us, going into the film I knew the least about Hank Williams, the legendary 40s and 50s-era country musician here played by Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers). Not that I was totally unfamiliar with Williams, his story, and his music, but it had never been a source of specific study for me as it was for my companions.
I Saw the Light mostly focuses on Williams’ rise as it concurred with his first marriage, to Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen, Scarlet Witch in The Avengers: Age of Ultron), who created strife by insisting on singing alongside her husband, even when everyone (audiences, handlers, other band members, Hank himself) didn’t want her to. In this way, I Saw the Light is a fairly generic, if functional, musician biopic—we see how the troubles at home, the chemical addictions, the womanizing, the things that would have made you hate Williams if you had known him, all serve as fertilizer from which grows his astounding musical capabilities.
Cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential) does some nice work here, and richness is found in the film’s Louisiana and Tennessee locations. But really, this is a film that lives and dies on its performances, as it clearly wants to be a Walk the Line-style success. In this regard, it’s hard not to notice that distributor Sony Pictures Classics conspicuously moved it from its originally-planned awards consideration berth late last year to the first-quarter dumping ground that is March. While Hiddleston, an actor I only like some of the time, impressed me with his ability to transform from a smarmy British villain to a charming Southern crooner, his signing voice (which is not dubbed over by the real Williams’, nor by anyone else—it’s all Hiddleston) is what is losing a lot of potential fans of the film. (My friend likened him to sounding akin to a one-man boy band.) Olsen gets a reprieve in that she’s supposed to sound bad—easier to sound like a dud than to sound like one of the most admired singers of the past century.
My mom’s beef with the film is that it doesn’t break any new ground—Williams’ story has been told and told again, including in the 1964 film Your Cheatin’ Heart, so nothing here was new to her. As for me, I didn’t know the real Williams’ voice quite well enough to be put off by Hiddleston’s imitation of it, and I had much to learn about his biography. As a result, I Saw the Light worked for me. So, maybe this film will recruit new members for the church of Williams, even if it isn’t able to successfully preach to the choir. | Pete Timmermann