Hank Williams receives biographical treatment on screen for a second time in Marc Abraham’s “I Saw the Light.” The iconic, sadly short-lived country-western singer was previously played by George Hamilton in 1964’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and now Tom Hiddleston, who was Loki in the “Thor” movies, takes on the part. Though he gives it his all—he even does his own singing, and quite creditably (Hamilton lip-synched to recreations by Hank Williams, Jr.)—Hiddleston probably should just have stayed in Asgard.
The problem with the film certainly isn’t its star. Nor is it the craft of production designer Meredith Boswell and costume designer Lahly Poore-Ericson, who revel in the period recreation of the post-World War II American South, or the lush widescreen cinematography of Dante Spinotti. The picture looks great, and it sounds fine too, in the numerous musical numbers (or portions thereof) interspersed in the narrative.
But Abraham hasn’t succeeded in giving much shape or rhythm to Williams’ story, making for a film that lurches along clumsily, with captions indicating dates and places introducing most scenes, and curiously fails to dramatize significant events, instead simply noting their occurrence second-hand. A good deal of information, for example, is presented in the form of ersatz-documentary interviews with his long-time publisher/publicist Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford). And while there are complaints about Williams’ womanizing early on, visual evidence of it isn’t forthcoming until the latter stages of the picture. Even Williams’ death occurs off-screen; we’re told about it via an announcement at the concert he never made it to, rather than witnessing it.
There are also curious omissions, matters that are introduced only to be left hanging. At one point Williams and his band are shown going to make an important television appearance, but their performance isn’t recreated; they merely talk about it afterward. And there’s a curious scene in which Williams and Rose are talking to a Hollywood studio executive (identified in the cast listing as Dore Schary, and played by Josh Pais) about the singer appearing in a movie. But after that sequence, no more is heard of the project.
In fact, the real focus of the film isn’t so much Williams’ career, cinematic or musical, as his tumultuous relationship with his wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen). The picture begins with their marriage in 1944 at an Alabama gas station, when Hank was appearing with his back-up band on a morning radio program while also playing bars at night and angling for a spot on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. What little we learn of his earlier life comes from occasional tidbits about his father and the presence of his doting but aggressive mother Lillie (Cherry Jones), a force of nature pushing him along, performance-wise, who sees Audrey, a gal determined to join Hank’s group despite a voice that’s considerably less than stellar, as a threat to her son’s potential success.
As it happens, Lillie is correct about Audrey’s effect on Williams. She doesn’t drive him to drink—we see that’s a major preoccupation of his from the very start—but is rather a nag. They fight all the time, separate periodically and then get back together; eventually she leaves him. Her departure and the difficulty she deliberately puts in the way of his seeing their son are portrayed as major reasons for his decline. But so is his physical condition, which is abruptly revealed as a particularly painful form of spina bifida that causes him back trouble (though we’re seen little evidence of it earlier) and, together with his lifestyle and emotional turmoil, it helped to bring about the heart problem that led to his untimely demise at age 29.
Abraham hasn’t found a way to structure all this material into a revealing portrait of the singer-songwriter’s inner life. He does make an occasional effort to offer some depth: for example, Williams explains himself—at least to some extent—in an interview sequence with a reporter (David Krumholtz). But what he offers is more boilerplate than revelation. One could argue, of course, that his lyrics are what were most expressive of Williams’ soul, and by having Hiddleston deliver them, the film tells us about the man. But if so, it’s an unnecessary exercise, since Williams’ own renditions are available—and superior to those found here, however great Hiddleston’s powers of impersonation might be.
So in spite of the picture’s sincerity and surface sheen—and Hiddleston’s committed performance—Abraham’s “Light” simply doesn’t shed sufficient illumination on its subject.