I was legally required to see this movie, because Tom Hiddleston. Well, and because I actually really like Hank Williams, so I was excited about a biopic for him, even if my initial reaction to the announcement was oh dear god but Hiddleston sounds so British.
I’m not a native of the south (and I’m also not great at accents), but Tom Hiddleston made for a convincing enough Hank Williams. More importantly, I think he did justice to the music. For example, Move It On Over (original) and Move It On Over (movie), even if it never sounded quite twangy enough. (Though how much of that is due to differing recording quality is open to question.) When I have some extra money (sob), I’ll probably see about picking up the soundtrack. It’s on the list at least.
I Saw the Light covers about eight years of Hank Williams’s life, from his marriage to Audrey in 1944 to his death in 1952. It’s a simultaneous career ascent and personal descent that ultimately kills him, and the movie’s not shy about the fact that the man had some serious substance abuse problems and was no angel. In many ways, it plays out like any other biopic of an artist tragically dead at a young age because he (or she) is pulled in too many directions at once, has no stable home life, and is enabled in the abuse of drugs by so-called friends and doctors-in-name-only.
There’s a lot to like about I Saw the Light. The principle cast–Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, Bradley Whitford as Fred Rose–all turn in excellent performances. It’s a very nicely shot movie. The sound is excellent. There’s a different tone here because the artist in question did country music rather than rock, which lends some extra interest. Country music (and its fans) don’t get a whole lot of love in film, so it’s refreshing to have a movie that seems to really get why this music speaks to people.
But–and this kills me to say this because I wanted to like this film so much more than I did–it feels like a collection of at times disconnected scenes out of a man’s life rather than a movie. The music and the good performances aren’t enough to really pull together what suffers from a fundamental problem of writing and editing.
Books and movies are obviously two very different media that approach things in very different ways, and nowhere is that more evident than in biographical film versus biographical books. Human life generally doesn’t have a discernible plot arc or an overall theme. We’re far too messy for that. Good biographies in book form not only transmit the dry facts of someone’s existence, but find a way to weave together events to show the whole person, their development, the way they touched the world, the way the world touched them. But it’s not something that’s generally going to fit ye olde three act format. And you can get away with that in a book because you have so much more time and space to build.
In a movie, you’ve got about two hours, and the need to hold someone’s attention for that entire time. Part of it is a matter of audience expectation–I go into a movie with much different expectations than I have going in to a documentary film. You expect a story out of a movie. That’s the reason biopics infamously play fast and loose with details, because reality bends to serve the art–and the art it’s serving is the story, the theme. I came out of 42 and Lincoln and Walk the Line feeling the satisfactory open and close of those stories, knowing what the director and actors were trying to say and how they felt the life of that particular person fits into the human experience both past and present.
And sadly, I Saw the Light misses out on that. I got some hints that there were dots the film was trying to connect, between the titular piece of music that makes its two appearances (the second in a heart-breaking and historically accurate way), the time or two Hank Williams talks about darkness in his music. But it failed to gel into a coherent thesis from where I sat, never quite connecting the details to the music in a satisfactory way.
I think it’s a movie that’s worth watching if you like Hank Williams. Maybe you’ll like it more than I did and it’ll work for you where it failed to work for me. I’m just sad that a movie I anticipated so much didn’t stick its landing for me.