The final scene of “I Saw the Light,” a biopic about folk legend Hank Williams, shows a packed theater on New Year’s Day in 1953. They’re waiting for Hank to come out, but instead get a plainly distraught and uncomfortable man tasked with delivering a message he doesn’t want to: That Hank Williams, at the age of only 29, died on the way to the concert.
As the camera peers out into the crowd a song starts to emerge — “I Saw the Light.” Everyone in the theater, on stage and off, joins in. They know the words as well as they know their own name.
Hank Williams belonged to the people, and that’s made clear in this perfectly realized moment. But it’s the first time the movie even attempts to show Williams’ impact outside of himself and make the audience understand why this man and his voice endures to this day and it comes far too late.
For most of the film, which writer-director Marc Abraham adapted from authors Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen’s biography, the fans are just numbers. They are records sold, listeners banked, and uninteresting faces in the crowd.
This is a naval-gazing biopic of the highest order, and not a particularly illuminating one either. It’s mostly about Hank, played by Tom Hiddleston, and his women. It trudges through the personal and professional highs and lows of his rise to fame as though it were a greatest hits record.
And for all the information we get about his tumultuous relationship with his first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), his drinking, his drugging, his cheating, and his success it still feels fairly slight and by the books. Even the retro, gauzy cinematography from the great Dante Spinotti makes the whole experience othering.
Biopics can be thankless heartbreakers for the actors brave enough to take them on, especially when it involves mimicking an iconic voice. Hiddleston, while seemingly too old in his mid-30s to play the young Hank, does a fine job in capturing the ghostly golden god, whose expressive eyes can go from tender to menacing in a flash. He’s got his gangly swagger down, too, and at least a workable approximation of that haunting voice.
But despite the minutiae and the long runtime, Hank Williams the artist never comes alive on screen. Even the career high of finally making it to the Grand Ole Opry lands with a thud. Was Williams that consistently tortured? Did he save all his charm for the stage? Did he really believe that his fans loved him because he suffered for them, as he drunkenly tells a reporter in one scene?
“I Saw the Light” can’t seem to decide, or even conjecture on any of those points. Nor are we given any insight into how the turmoil in his life turned into songs. In one scene he’s fighting, in the next he’s singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Juxtaposition only goes so far, and it’s not enough here. Abraham just presents moments and moves on.
A biopic should be more interested in what made Hank Williams extraordinary, not just the things that made him like everyone else. We never feel what he feels when he goes from a fight to a ballad. Here, he might as well be flipping through a Hank Williams songbook that he’s completely disconnected from. That’s why the final scene works so well. It finally makes you feel a connection between the man, the song, the audience and the historical context that made him.
Great movies, like great songs, illustrate the ineffable. This is a movie that had too much to tell and not enough to say.
“I Saw the Light,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language and brief sexuality/nudity.” Running time: 123 minutes. Two stars out of four.