Hank Williams is considered one of the most influential singers and songwriters and of the twentieth century, releasing thirty-five singles during his brief career in the 1940s and 50s. In 1964, a biographical film based on Williams’ life titled “Your Cheatin’ Heart”—the same name as one of his hit songs—was released. Starring George Hamilton as Williams, the film took some liberties with his life story, sugar-coating some aspects of his private life. In contrast, director Marc Abraham’s new Hank Williams biopic, “I Saw the Light”—again, the name of a Williams song—is a brutally honest and—as far as one can tell—accurate portrayal of the singer’s life from 1944 onwards.
Tom Hiddleston takes on the role of Hank Williams, who in the film’s opening scene we see sitting in a spotlight, singing a mournful ballad alone as the camera revolves around him. We then see him marrying the newly-divorced Audrey Mae (Elizabeth Olsen) in a gas station, and learn that he and his band perform on the radio in the mornings. But Williams has bigger plans: he wants to make it to the Grand Ole Opry, the pinnacle of country music fame. It quickly becomes obvious, though, that Williams has problems with drugs and alcohol that both interfere with his career and his relationship with Audrey Mae, which ranges wildly from loving to abusive.
“I Saw the Light” doesn’t have a cohesive plot. It is rather a series of snapshots of Williams’ life. Many of these scenes are great; they’re well shot, well acted, and well scripted. But as a whole, they don’t fit together so well. Perhaps on a thematic level, it works. Audrey Mae and Hank’s relationship often fluctuates from tender moments to passionate arguments in which they scream, throw things, Hank even once going so far as to shoot the wall of their home multiple times. It reflects how turbulent their relationship was, but it makes the film feel disjointed. Likewise, the film ends very abruptly. In real life, Williams passed away abruptly; he was found dead in his car on the way to a New Year’s concert in Ohio in 1953, at the age of only twenty-nine. His heart failed due to the strain from all the drugs and alcohol in his system, some of which were prescribed to him by his doctor, actually a convicted forger who purchased a Doctor of Science diploma for $35. But in the film, it doesn’t feel like there’s any closure. Because the film consists so much of individual scenes that often don’t lead into each other, the final scene lacks the emotional punch it should have.
However, “I Saw the Light” does boast some of the year’s finest performances, making it well worth seeing. Hiddleston, who with his tall, lanky frame actually somewhat resembles the real Williams, completely nails it with his performance. He isn’t a caricature of Hank Williams; he is Hank Williams. It’s impressive enough that the British actor has the Southern drawl down so well, but his singing is also phenomenal; he even gets the yodels in the songs down just right. He presents Williams as a complicated man, one who is charming and fun and presents that persona to the public, but has a darker side as well. He has an awful temper. He isn’t loyal to his wife. He drinks so much, and you can see the physical toll it takes on him in Hiddleston’s expressions and physical appearance, as his eyes grow red and bloodshot, his gait sluggish.
Elizabeth Olsen is equally brilliant as Audrey Mae, who also isn’t a particularly sympathetic character. From the start she uses her marriage to Hank to try to sing on his radio show, even though she isn’t a particularly good singer. She’s a strong character, one who knows what she wants and refuses to take any of Hank’s abuse; if he fights with her, she fights back. And yet they have amazing chemistry. Hiddleston and Olsen light up the screen when they share a scene together. The rest of the cast is solid as well, including Cherry Jones, who plays Hank’s mother and manager Lillie—and who also despises Audrey Mae—and Bradley Whitford, who plays Fred Rose, the man who signed Williams to his first record deal (Whitford also appears as Rose in a series of oddly placed interviews reflecting on Williams).
As far as biopics go, “I Saw the Light” is a disjointed but decent movie that is made great by its wonderful cast, and some scenes that truly are beautifully stage and shot by Abraham. It gets at the essence of the man in a way that “Your Cheatin’ Heart” did not, and likely no other adaptation ever could.
Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity. “I Saw the Light” will be in theaters nationwide in March 2016. The film was screened this weekend as part of the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. For more information on the Film Festival, which runs through November 15, visit the Cinema St. Louis website.