I Saw The Light departs from the usual music biopic, to its betterment
There is a certain pattern to most biopics about popular musicians. From Buddy Holly to Ray Charles, from Johnny Cash to Easy E and Ice Cube, they all start with humble roots.
We see the musicians working on their craft, overcoming challenges, performing in relative obscurity until a goodly record producer encounters them in a bar, in a club, at a fair, sees something special and lifts them to new heights. Then, the audience sees the struggles of sudden fame and fortune, the parties, the women, the drugs and alcohol, the shattered relationships, and the redemptive power of music.
There are different shades to each, varied personalities and music styles, and yet the story is almost always the same. As all roads lead to Rome, all tales of stars in the making lead to divorce. The key in films like these is to showcase the music whenever possible, drawing attention to the significance and power of the songs and the cultural zeitgeist these artists captured, relating the significance in meaningful, relatable ways. If the film can do that, it is easier to ignore the overwhelming similarities in the stories.
The latest in the musical biography film is I Saw the Light about Hank Williams. To its credit, I Saw the Light doesn’t follow the same predictable standard, at least as faithfully as other films of its type. Williams is already well on his way to stardom when the film opens and far into his family traditions. The effect of this break in type is to focus more on the character and less on the journey. While I Saw the Light maintains an even keel for the entire film, the slow pace rarely diminishes the story it tries to tell.
Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) as an icon is more mysterious than others in the country music industry. Much of this has to do with the relative shortness of his career as well as the careful image control of 1950s entertainment. Hail, Caesar!, a film from earlier this year set in 1950s Hollywood, showcased the importance of a clean, moral image for film stars. The Grand Ole Opry was similar in how it promoted its artists.
There is a constant undercurrent of rumor surrounding Hank Williams, rumors later confirmed by family and friends and anyone who knew him. But the film takes care to show that there were other underlying causes to Williams’ behavior, from a controlling mother to a talentless, insistent wife, from an exhausting, unforgiving tour schedule made worse by a chronic illness treated with increasingly large amounts of pain medication to a widely publicized problem with alcohol.
You get the impression that the stars of the Opry were treated like circus animals, with demanding schedules and unforgiving promoters who would resort to anything to ensure a performance. Williams’ story doesn’t follow the usual trajectory because he was exposed to a level of exploitation long before fame caught up to him. The story of Hank Williams is less tragic circumstance and more a consequence of fate.
However, this lack of rise and fall in the story leads to uniform narrative. Films like Ray and Walk The Line build slowly but gather themselves to a climax before resolving themselves in satisfying ways. Most stories are told this way—it’s Storytelling 101. I Saw the Light doesn’t follow any sort of arc.
It is a slow, character driven march towards the inevitable conclusion. The performances are excellent—Hiddleston does his own singing, despite not having much of a musical background, and Elizabeth Olsen shines onscreen as his failed June Carter. And yet, there are many who would find the film far too slow, lacking in introspection and meaning. The lack of self-reflection by the characters may be the point, however. Williams, it seems, never saw himself as more than musician. He was self-centered in his personal life, but gave himself to his audience in an effort to ease the pain of living through his songs.
I Saw the Light is not the best film about a popular musician. Often, Williams’ music is relegated to the background, heard only in the wings or over the radio. But the film seems to be arguing that this is how Hank Williams saw the music himself—effortless, simple, and soothing. The film is not the standard, but its effective enough through the performances.