My parents instilled in me a love for movies and music. Two of my mom’s favorite singers are Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. Joaquin Phoenix did a damn fine job of portraying Cash in Walk the Line, while Tom Hiddleston transformed into Williams in I Saw the Light. The former film is a textbook example of how to make a biopic. The latter? Not so much.
It’s a shame, since Tom Hiddleston is so transformative in the role. Over the course of a few weeks, with coaching from Rodney Crowell, (who is one of my favorite singer/songwriters) Hiddleston learned how to play guitar, and sing and yodel like Hank Williams. I tried for years to learn how to play guitar, and all I figured out was that I have zero musical talent.
In an article for The Telegraph, film critic Robbie Collin explains how Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story exposed the cliches inherent in biopics; in particular, those about geniuses of any variety. I have never seen Walk Hard for fear that I will never be able to take another biopic seriously. Collin states that Don Cheadle and Danny Boyle each watched Walk Hard before making films about Miles Davis and Steve Jobs, respectively, in order to avoid the patterns often found in the genre. I do not know if I Saw the Light writer/director Marc Abraham has seen Walk Hard, but he did avoid the well-worn trope found in most films: narrative.
If you are anything like me, your middle school book reports contained an overuse of the phrase “and then.” Hell, I still use it all the time in reviews and recaps. I wish I could say that Abraham employed an episodic type of storytelling. When it’s done well, I enjoy the format. Some people hate it, and those people are wrong.
Denis Leary famously described Oliver Stone’s movie about Jim Morrison and The Doors by saying: “I’m drunk, I’m nobody. I’m drunk, I’m famous. I’m drunk, I’m dead. Big, fat dead guy in a bathtub” Hank Williams was the opposite of fat, and he died in the backseat of a Cadilliac, but if all your information about him came from this movie, you would say the first part is an accurate distillation of his life. No pun intended.
Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) marries Audrey Sheppard, (Elizabeth Olsen) who is also his business manager, but holds an ambition to be a singer in her own right. The thing is that Audey can’t sing, which must have been a difficult thing for Olsen to portray without crossing the line into farce. In the movie anyway, Audrey wasn’t as awful as a lot of “singers” I have heard in church services and at funerals over the years, (the phrase “cat caught in a Cuisinart” comes to mind) but she’s no Patsy Cline either.
Hank’s mother, Lillie, (Cherry Jones) is no fan of Audrey’s, and it has little to nothing to do with her singing ability. I like Cherry Jones, but it’s for the best that she only had a small role. Not just because the film is a disappointment, but because I live in the South, and everywhere I go, I see (and hear) the husband/wife/mother/mother-in-law dynamic play out.
One of the problems with I Saw the Light is that I didn’t come away with a lot of new information about Hank Williams. I did learn that his life-long back problems were caused by spina bifida, which was a late in life diagnosis. But like a lot of stuff in the movie, it was mentioned only once. I get the feeling that sums my experience with I Saw the Light: I watched it once, (and a second time with the commentary track) but never again.