Sadly, the further we get away from memorable or historically impactful figures in history, the more and more forgotten those figures become. Fortunately Hank Williams' impact on music is remembered fondly and carried on by current legends like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Sooner or later, the inevitable biopic on the mystery man who died before his 30th birthday was bound to happen, and with a name of the Hollywood moment in the lead role, no less.
The film is written and directed by Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), based on the book by Colin Escott and William MacEwen. Focusing on the last nine years of his life, we see Williams (Tom Hiddleston, Thor) get married to his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen, Avengers: Age of Ultron). Williams' rise in popularity is shown with friction amongst himself and Audrey, or to his bandmates, while his producer Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) released his records while trying to manage him. Williams' addictions to drug and alcohol are shown, along with his disintegrating marriage to Audrey, as well as his spina bifida diagnosis, before he passed in 1953.
For as intriguing and mysterious a figure as Williams is to many, the decision to spend I Saw The Light on Williams' musical rise and fall nationally is curious because no time is spent on the beginnings of Williams' life. I don't think it's too much to ask for even some sort of connection to get the viewer to that point so that some buy-in from them can be established. By starting the film in 1944 as Hank and Audrey are about to be married, we not only miss whatever childhood scenes that could have been used to speculate on Hank's influences as a man, we also to a degree miss the reasons why he turned to music. Hank had been a radio host in Alabama for a half dozen years by this point, which is mentioned, but one would presume, at some point, he would have picked up a guitar and sung and you would be there for the moment where it clicked. We don't see it and Abraham presumably relies upon Hank's legacy as the buy-in, which does not work and hurts the movie for a large portion of it, which it does not recover from.
This isn't to say that the movie is two hours of dreck because the performances by the leads are sort of daring I think, considering what they had to work with. Hiddleston handles the role adeptly, keeping some of the Hank swagger intact while showing a determination to continue performing until the end. Olsen as Audrey almost matches him step for step, and the decision to allow them to sing, sometimes unaccompanied, is a bold one. Shortly after marrying they sing a song in the kitchen while Hank plays with Audrey's child from a prior marriage, and at the time I thought cynically it was a tactic to help distract from the poor choices in Abraham's story, but I enjoyed the two singing, or at the very least, respected the chances they took in doing it and the range they showed through the film.
I get what Hiddleston and Abraham tried to do when they made I Saw The Light. But by ignoring even the smallest service to his life before Hank Williams became Hank Williams, the film suffers to the point where even the performances can't save it. I didn't understand why the film hit the skids as hardly as it did, then I saw it. Woof.The Blu-ray:
The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation Sony Classics befits I Saw The Light is a visual treat. From the opening shot, cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential) gets the chance to shoot Hiddleston with a single spotlight, and the warm amber of the light picks up all the dust it catches, contrasting against the dark stage and the white of Williams' clothes. When the film moves to natural environments like the various houses of Audrey and Hank, the green grass is lush and detailed, and interiors possess textures of paint on wood and fabric on clothes. The concert performances have a spotlight that shines a light on Williams' wardrobe that is bright yet retains accuracy to the source. It's an amazing looking film.The Sound:
The DTS-HD 5.1 lossless surround presents the music in all its glory. When Hank plays at the Grand Ole Opry is when the songs are the highlight, but an outdoor festival where Hank is talking hauntingly is another chance to show an understated dynamic range in the soundtrack. Quieter moments of dialogue remain consistent with little adjustment and is well balanced throughout the film.Extras:
Abraham provides a commentary that, to his credit is fairly involved and almost serves as a defense of sorts for the film. He discusses why the film covers the portion of Williams' life that it does. It didn't assuage my reservations on it, but points to him. He has raves for the cast and crew and recounts the original casting ideas, along with some deleted scenes. He discusses shooting in Louisiana and their wealth of casinos and drive-thru establishments that provide margaritas, and discusses his film influences. He then moves on to Williams' influences and thoughts on the multiple biographies on him, and is most definitely not a fan of the Elvis movies that helped propel his star even higher. He has production stories though, like the film, they are a little more abstract and less anecdotal or tangible. It's a fascinating track to listen to. Next are ten deleted scenes (13:51) which include introductions to each by Abraham, as well as an introduction to the section by him. There is more time in these scenes on Hank's second wife shortly before his death, and on some philandering he did in his life overall. "Talking Hank" (21:39) is a feature where Hiddleston and Rodney Crowell (a longtime country musician who appears in the film as a member of Hank's supporting band) discuss Tom's approach to playing Hank, on the process for doing so, and on the many themes of Hank, including darkness and mortality. Rehearsal footage of Hiddleston is shown and he performs two songs in the interview. Your level of appreciation of this will depend on the last part I suppose. The premiere party is also shown (10:52) and, surprise! Hiddleston does some music at the after party as well. The trailer (2:04) and a digital copy round it out.Final Thoughts:
I think if you like seeing your favorite stars try bold things as part of a character, then at a minimum I Saw The Light is worth your time. But the film tries to look at the reasons why Hank Williams was great and gives us a guy who's a self-destructive mess and provides little to no context as to why. Technically it's pretty good and the commentary is intriguing, but this film could not have missed its target any more than it did.