Singer-songwriter Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) has a lot of talent and ambition, but that’s not reflected in his circumstances. His band has a regular gig at a country radio station, which gives his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), the opportunity to try her luck at being a singer, too.
But the station’s manager isn’t particularly impressed with her vocalizing. And that’s bad news for Williams, who’s honor-bound to stand up for Audrey even as he realizes that the manager has a point.
It doesn’t help that Audrey and his mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) are constantly at each other’s throats, even as he struggles to grab a spot at the Grand Ole Opry — the gold ring for country performers.
Whatever success Williams attains is compromised by his penchant for chasing women, knocking back booze and popping pills. As he explains to a reporter (David Krumholtz), his art is inextricably connected to his pain.
As much as Williams is an entertainer, he’s also a poet who understands just how sad and lonely his listeners can get because he’s been there himself. But ultimately, Williams is two people: a genius, and a scoundrel. And only one of them can win.
“I Saw the Light” is a disappointing biopic about an artist who forged a path in music from the 1930s through the ’50s and deserves much better. Writer-director Marc Abraham (“Flash of Genius”) devotes minimal time to Williams’ creative process, opting instead to dwell on his bad behavior — and follow the tired template that has made the biopic one of the least respected film genres.
That’s a disservice not only to moviegoers but to Hiddleston, a British actor who comes across as a thoroughly authentic Southerner while capturing the country legend’s tortured blend of soulfulness and self-destructiveness. Olsen and Jones also transcend the material to deliver performances of considerable grit.
If you’re interested in Williams and his music, this film is better than nothing — but not by much.
What “I Saw the Light” • Two stars out of four • Run time 2:03 • Rating R • Content Language and sexuality/nudity