By Pamela Zoslov
A great deal of fuss has surrounded the release of I Saw the Light, the new film biography of country-music legend Hank Williams, much of it coming from Williams’ family.
After seeing a video of British actor Tom Hiddleston, who plays Williams in the movie, singing a Hank Williams song, Hank Williams III, Williams’ grandson, posted a video on Facebook of himself performing “Move It On Over.”
Hank 3, as Williams petit-fils is known, wrote: “Here is how you do it, Tom. You got no Moan or Soul in your voice.” He later elaborated: “To do a Hank Williams movie the way it should be done, you need certain aspects in the mix. It goes way beyond having [an] American play the role of Hiram Hank Williams Sr. It needs to be an American from the South who has eat lived and breathed these kind of roles before.” Hank 3 suggested Matthew McConaughey, demonstrating an instinct for casting that apparently eluded Sony Pictures.
The movie’s problems are many, and Hiddleston’s musical inadequacy is only one. Based on a book, Hank Williams: The Biography, the screenplay recounts the last eight years of Williams’ life, from his 1944 marriage to Audrey Sheppard to his death at age 29 in the back seat of a pale blue Cadillac on his way to a gig in Canton, Ohio. Although writer-director Marc Abraham tries to enliven things with black-and-white newsreel and faux interview footage — the kind of thing that was done so well in Trumbo — the narrative is ploddingly linear, making Williams’ short and stormy life seem downright dull.
Worse, it doesn’t tell the audience anything about what made Hank Williams, the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” so special, or how, in his brief career, he became a legend, the standard against which all country singer-songwriters are measured.
Hank 3 is right about Hiddleston, a skinny bloke whose singing in no way evokes Williams’ heartache and charisma. Hiddleston sings and plays the classics “Move It On Over,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Cold, Cold Heart” competently — well enough, probably, to entertain at parties. But it was a bad idea to have him do his own singing and playing in the movie.
There are times when that kind of thing works — Gary Busey as Buddy Holly, another short-lived music legend, was fairly persuasive, with genuine feeling for the music. (Busey said he was “channeling” Holly.) If, however, you were to tell a young person that Hank Williams was the most influential country music artist of all time, then show him this movie, you’d be met with a dumb, blank stare. (Historical note: Williams was played by handsome George Hamilton in the 1964 movie Your Cheatin’ Heart; Hamilton wanted to do his own singing, but the studio insisted on dubbing Hank Williams Jr.’s voice.)
I Saw the Light opens with the wedding of Hank and Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), a divorcee with a young daughter, on a rainy night before a justice of the peace at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama.
Hank and Audrey’s marriage is tempestuous, plagued by interference from Hank’s controlling mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), Audrey’s frustrated musical ambitions, Hank’s womanizing, and his increasing dependence on pills and alcohol, in part due to the excruciating pain of undiagnosed spina bifida. The couple bicker, separate, reunite, then finally divorce, the marriage having produced a son, Randall Hank Williams (Hank Jr.), nicknamed “Bocephus” (after a Grand Ole Opry comedian’s ventriloquist dummy) and a string of classic songs about romantic misery.
Conspicuously missing is the context for Hank’s music, the early influences that shaped him. The real Hank grew up absorbing gospel music from black and white communities — the movie takes its title from his well-known country-gospel song — as well as folk and blues. He had learned to play the guitar from an African American street musician, Rufus Payne.
In a six-year career, Hank Williams recorded 66 songs under his own name, several with Audrey, and more as his moralizing, talking-blues alter ego Luke the Drifter. An astonishing 37 of his songs were hits; in one afternoon, he recorded three songs that became standards. Where did all this songwriting talent, and the preternatural wisdom of his lyrics, come from? The movie doesn’t speculate. The most revealing analysis is in a Williams quote in the movie’s trailer: “People don’t write music. It’s given to them.”
The movie covers the rise of Williams’ career, from performing on an early-morning radio show and realizing his long-held dream of playing the Grand Ole Opry to getting a recording contract and a movie offer. He gets rich, buys big houses and flashy cars and a mink coat for Audrey. He “dranks like a fish,” seduces women, goes to a hospital to dry out, relapses, and waves a gun around the house, the last straw for Audrey.
After Hank and Audrey’s divorce, he marries 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), but not before impregnating another woman, Bobbie Jett (Wrenn Schmidt). The movie gives Billie a significant role, whereas the real-life Audrey Williams spent decades trying to erase the second Mrs. Hank Williams from history. You have permission to roll your eyes as Hank gives bride Billie an emotional farewell before leaving for the road, as if he knows he’s going on a trip to eternity.
The movie is more concerned with Hank’s romantic travails than with his music, and the result is more cornpone soap opera than musical bio, albeit with attractive period settings and handsomely moody cinematography by Dante Spinotti. With a towering figure like Williams, lack of authenticity is a problem. As Hank himself said, “You have got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” Grade: C+