On the strength of Love & Mercy and Straight Outta Compton this summer, it would have been easy to declare 2015 the year of the musician biopic. But with the TIFF premiere of Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light, the subgenre has hit an unfortunate bump in the road. Contrary to its title, this cinematic account of the life of country singer Hank Williams is a dull, gloomy affair.
In the beginning of the film, we see Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) at the start of his career, singing for small audiences in Alabama. By his side – on stage and in life – is his wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), an aspiring singer as well but lacking in talent. The disparity in their musical abilities causes tension between the couple, as well as the support team around them. Eventually, Audrey is removed from the ensemble (with Hank’s help) and Hank’s career takes off. But on the road to stardom, Hank faces his own adversities, struggling with alcoholism and tumultuous relationships with Audrey and other women.
When the film was announced, many had pegged it as the next Walk the Line. But those proclamations were premature, as awards season will surely pass this one by. Adapted from Colin Escott’s “Hank Williams: The Biography”, Marc Abraham’s screenplay is certainly ambitious, attempting to capture all the many facets of Williams’ character – his talent, his ambition, his charm and his many vices. But the scope of Williams’ fascinating story is out of Abraham’s grasp, leading to a frustratingly unfocused narrative. Each pivotal moment feels like merely a checkpoint in the narrative, without any deeper nuance or stylistic flourishes to invigorate the film. Most peculiarly, the same somber approach is used whether the film is depicting a triumphant stage performance or an unfortunate tragedy. Furthermore, the predictability of the tropes – domestic arguments, alcoholic relapes, meet cutes – avoids any surprises to excite the audience.
That I Saw the Light remains watchable is all due to the performances given by Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen. Hiddleston looks and sounds the part – he does his own singing – and the film truly comes alive when he’s on stage. Likewise, the pair are riveting during the scenes involving their domestic drama, when the film is at its most intense. But even they suffer under the mostly plodding nature of Abaraham’s direction, unable to fully shine.
Despite its extraordinary subject, I Saw the Light falls well short of greatness. At the end of it, I was glad I finally saw the light myself. That is, the light from outside the theater to relieve me from this tiring experience.