Review: The darkness of Hank Williams’ life overshadows ‘I Saw the Light’
Hank Williams, the great tragic genius of country music, wrote some of the most memorable American popular songs before dying in 1953 in the back seat of his powder-blue Cadillac.
The author of dozens of hit country singles, including “Honky Tonkin’,” “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” he was only 29.
Although Williams lived a couple of years too long to be included in what’s been called the “27 Club,” composed of music legends (including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse) who died at that age, the singer-songwriter’s life was filled with enough self-destructive behavior to qualify him for membership.
The latest film in the Williams sweepstakes, the serviceable “I Saw the Light,” written and directed by Marc Abraham, has the great advantage of a splendid performance by Tom Hiddleston in the title role.
Though the British actor, best known for playing the duplicitous Loki in Marvel’s “Thor” movies and the more recent “Crimson Peak,” might seem an unlikely pick for an Alabama-born singer whose signature country twang was strong and unmistakable, he turns out to have been an inspired choice.
Not only does Hiddleston, who was tutored by musician (and the film’s executive music producer) Rodney Crowell, do an expert job of singing numerous Williams songs in the film, he gives a convincing performance as the charismatic man who mined his troubled life for musical material.
Though Hiddleston’s costars, including Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) as Williams’ first wife, Audrey, and the protean Cherry Jones as his protective mother, Lillie, are also strong actors, “I Saw the Light” is solid but not spectacular, a retelling of a sad story that never catches fire.
Based on Colin Escott’s thoroughly researched biography, “I Saw the Light” is respectful of the facts of Williams’ personal life, the effect his womanizing, alcoholism and abuse of pills had on his marriages, but seeing it all on screen is more disturbing than compelling.
All unhappy families may be different, but they don’t always make for involving viewing.
Williams and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, have an early morning program on a local radio station, but trouble begins when Audrey, more ambitious than she is talented and with a blind spot about her own singing ability, develops a strong-willed determination to join her husband in the limelight.
It doesn’t help things that her mother-in-law is overtly hostile and that her husband, as a scene playing a rowdy late-night gig at a local roadhouse demonstrates, is a man who viewed flirtatiousness as part of his act and was not averse to getting into brawls because of it.
In fact, one of the strengths of Hiddleston’s performance is the way it casually emphasizes the come-hither quality in Williams’ stage performances, a kind of pre-Elvis Southern sensuality that was not the norm in its time and place.
As Williams’ substance abuse continues to be a problem and his relationship with Audrey seesaws from bad to worse to better to worse again, the tedium of these trajectories is relieved by sequences charting the progress of the singer’s career.
A collection of noteworthy biopics and documentaries that explore the personal and professional lives of musicians.(Lionsgate; Universal Pictures; 20th Century Fox)
In “I Saw the Light,” Tom Hiddleston, best known for his role as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, portrays country music pioneer Hank Williams, who died at age 29.(Sam Emerson / Sony Pictures Classics via AP)
“Miles Ahead” focuses on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ return from his late-1970s silent period. Don Cheadle directs himself in the title role. Previously titled “Kill the Trumpet Player,” the film is set to be released in 2016.(Pan African Film Festival )
“Straight Outta Compton” follows the meteoric rise and fall of the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A., which burst onto the music scene in the mid-1980s with a sound that reflected the violence and desperation of its gang-ridden surroundings.(Jaimie Trueblood / Universal Pictures)
Netflix’s “What Happened, Miss Simone?” chronicles the life of singer and activist Nina Simone.(Sundance Institute)
“Amy” offers an intimate, unflinching gaze into the life of singer Amy Winehouse, exposing the perils of celebrity and addiction and how Winehouse fed off the two.(A24)
Director Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” offers an intimate look at the life of the late musician from his childhood in Aberdeen, Wash., through his rise to stardom with the grunge band Nirvana to his death in 1994.(Dora Handel / TNS)
Directed by producer-financier William Pohlad, “Love & Mercy” chronicles the complicated, eccentric personal saga of Beach Boys cofounder Brian Wilson. John Cusack and Paul Dano play Wilson in different periods of his tumultuous life, with Paul Giamatti as his tormentor, psychologist Eugene Landy.(Francois Duhamel / Roadside Attractions)
This observational documentary offers a final opportunity to witness the singer in lucid moments, with his artistry movingly intact. He moved into an Alzheimer’s treatment facility in March 2014, three years after filming began.(PCH Films)
This biopic examines the dramatic rise and fall of Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G., played by Jamal Woolard, right, with Dennis White. Domestic gross: $36,843,682.(Phil Caruso / 20th Century Fox)
We find out about Williams’ determination to become a regular on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the gold standard for country singers, and the show’s parallel wariness about his reliability.
We learn how he recorded “Lovesick Blues,” his first No. 1 hit, over the objections of his producer and the type of material he recorded under his Luke the Drifter pseudonym.
We also learn that, country though he was, Williams was popular enough to take a Hollywood meeting with MGM head Dore Schary and appear on Perry Como’s TV show in New York.
It was on that trip to Manhattan that “I Saw the Light” sits Williams down with a newspaperman and has him deliver a kind of credo about his appeal.
“Everybody has a little darkness in ‘em,” the singer says. “I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame. ... I show it to ‘em. And they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.”
And so Williams did.
But his own troubles were something else, and, Hiddleston aside, they overpower this film.
‘I Saw the Light’
MPAA rating: R, for some language and brief sexuality/nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles
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