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.
In fact, Williams’ life was so tumultuous that it has led to numerous films, including 1964’s George Hamilton-starring Your Cheatin’ Heart and 1972’s Payday, with Rip Torn as a Williams-inspired character.
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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 co-stars, 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.
Certainly when we first meet the 21-year-old Williams and his bride at their December 1944 wedding ceremony at an Andalusia, Ala., service station, their feelings for each other seem strong and vibrant.
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.
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 ’im,” 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.
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I Saw the Light
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones
Rated: R (strong language, brief sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 123 min.