Have you ever seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story? Well, Marc Abraham’s I Saw The Light is the EXACT type of biopic that John C. Reilly’s Dewey Cox character pokes fun at. Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan cleverly roast formulaic true-story recounts in their highly underrated comedy, yet here we are, some eight years later, and Abraham manages to recreate the dramatic equivalent to Dewey Cox’s fabricated life.
Maybe Hank Williams’ story was a major influence on Walk Hard, because entire scenes are recreated with uncanny likenesses – I’m talkin’ about being double married and stuff, not even the obvious genre notes. Tom Hiddleston is a knockout Williams impersonator, but unfortunately for Abraham, his leading man’s charisma only goes so far.
Strapping on his Americana stirrups, Hiddleston plays musical legend Hank Williams, who stunned honky-tonk listeners in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He lived a short, stunted life, but his ability to write chart-topping hits remains unmatched in quantity.
Williams found the love of his life many times over, most famously with Audrey May Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), and drank his way through more nights than he can remember (or, can’t remember). Little did people know, the lyrical gunslinger also battled a painful case of Spina Bifida Occulta, which lead to a nasty mix of severe alcoholism, pain-pill abuse, and a few other nasty chemicals that never should have been mixed. His is a story of dreams, fame, and all the messiness in between, cut far too short by a painful losing battle.
In recognizing the shallow despair of Hank Williams’ life, can we quickly revisit the whole Dewey Cox comparison again? It’s not often that a movie is spoofed eight(ish) years prior, but Walk Hard has I Saw The Light‘s exact number. Memorable performances at the Grand Ole Opry are recreated with Hiddleston, who conveys evolving plot material through self-referential songs (Cox did it). Abraham’s adaptation sparingly shows drug usage, only to indicate worsening methods (Cox did it), and there’s a quick rehab scene where he’s shown tossing and turning in bed (COX DID IT). But that’s not all.
There’s a moronic run-in between two of his lovers (Cox), duets with his wife (Cox), and even freakin’ David Krumholtz shows up in I Saw The Light (who played Cox’s manager). Scenes feel wooden enough as is, but having Walk Hard as a comparison point only highlights how Abraham’s team safely adheres to the same stifling techniques of almost an entire decade ago.
On a brighter note, Hiddleston isn’t the issue here – he’s a gui-tar strummin’ good-old-boy who hides darker, intimate issues, along with alcohol-fueled demons. Williams’ afflictions are highlighted by Hiddleston’s pain, and he does well to balance vanity with the distractions of overnight fame. His interactions with women and assessment of responsibility are a neglectful product of the times, but Hiddleston finds a way to transform warped senses of womanization into vile, yet enchanting charms. This is a testament to chameleon-like camouflaging that turns an emaciated Hiddleston into the famed country legend – full-scale embodiment on a distinguished level.
Audrey Mae’s relationship provides insight into the loving husband/father Williams had buried deep inside, as Olsen’s chemistry brings out a stark contrast the movie sorely needs. Yet, I Saw The Light ultimately feels one-note, both in presentation and practice. Abraham’s focus on Hank Williams detracts from generic side-characters who add little value in terms of context, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s shaky camera work does nothing in terms of authenticity. A natural, more raw energy is supposed to be captured by throwing steady-cam rigs away, but frantic unsteadiness only distracts from an already weightless delivery. In terms of atmosphere, a certain staleness exists in each scenic bite, even with rhinestone cowboywear and dapper concert garb.
As a biographical drama, I Saw The Light is fine-tuned for Hank Williams fans who have long enjoyed his twangy signatures. The problem is, with such a sporadic focus and general airlessness, unfamiliar parties won’t feel properly informed as they waltz through the songwriter’s most prolific years.
Williams’ drug addiction leaks out in small, forgettable increments, only when he jumps to the next, more dangerous level of intake (COUGH COUGH DEWEY COX COUGH COUGH), and even his drunken outbursts are tempered on camera. For those reasons alone, I Saw The Light proves to be musically entertaining, but remains oddly unfulfilling in terms of a deeper, more human story. Respect on the most surface-value of levels, lacking investment, character or soul.
I Saw The Light is a honky-tonkin' biopic that's able to fake rhythm, but sadly, lacks any genuine soul.