The music biopic is a genre that comes pre-loaded with its own set of clichés: every musician with a life worth documenting was a tortured genius who faced marital strife, struggled with sobriety, and lived in a way that conveniently lends itself to a three act structure.
Then the comedy "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" was released in 2007 and so thoroughly exploded the formula that any filmmaker foolish enough to tiptoe into the genre was forced to forge a new path, lest they be compared unfavorably to a film in which John C. Reilly's gifted country music singer struggles to overcome the trauma and shame of accidentally slicing his younger brother in half with a machete. ("The wrong kid died!")
The influence of "Walk Hard" -- at least in part -- resulted in a number of innovative entries to the genre in recent years, from "Love & Mercy" and "Get On Up" to Don Cheadle's upcoming "Miles Ahead." But now director Marc Abraham sets us back, diving headlong into the clichés with "I Saw the Light," his strictly by-the-numbers dramatization of the life of country music icon Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston).
Beginning with Williams already an established singer with life-long dreams of playing the Grand Ole Opry, the narrative takes us through his struggles with substance abuse, addiction, and philandering, up until his early death at the age of 29. Much time is spent on Williams's volatile marriage to his first wife, Audrey (an excellent Elizabeth Olsen), an aspiring singer regretfully lacking Williams' talent. And along the way, we get a generous helping of musical performances and faux black-and-white, documentary-style interviews with producer Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) and various other behind-the-scenes players to fill in any gaps.
It's the Wikipedia approach to chronicling a life, with the script -- written by Abraham and based on Colin Escott's biography -- touching on each major event before swiftly moving on to the next key incident. The method makes for an often dull, unfocused snapshot of what should be a compelling figure. Abraham dutifully doles out frequent performances of Williams' greatest hits, but as enjoyable as these numbers are (with Hiddleston doing all of his own singing), we're deprived of any sense of context for the songs.
Nothing in the film offers much insight into Williams as a man; we never learn what's truly driving him. It's a real shame since Hiddleston's performance is actually quite good, bringing both an intensity and a sense of empathy to the role even when the script leaves him stranded. In a post "Walk Hard" world, any music biopic has to bring something more to the table, but as a portrait of a troubled musical genius, "I Saw the Light" is less than illuminating.