“Hank Williams is the father of contemporary country music,” according to his bio at CMT.com. The museum built to honor him calls him “the first Country Music superstar” and “one of the most powerful iconic figures in American Music.” Williams’ biographer Colin Escott wrote, “His premature death left what is still the most important single body of work in country music, as well as the tantalizing promise of what might have been.”
There’s a lot of truth in all that praise, but the new film about Williams’ life, “I Saw the Light,” does little to show us exactly why.
“I Saw the Light” begins with Hank Williams’ marriage to first wife Audrey (the two are played by Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen) in 1944, and ends just nine years later with the country star’s death at age 29. In between, we see a rapid succession of professional highs and personal lows. His hard struggle to reach the stage of the Grand Ole Opry culminates in triumph, but it isn’t long before alcoholism, crippling back pain, and overwork combine to drag him down.
Many of the film’s scenes convincingly convey intimacy or tension, and all are acted with great sensitivity and depth. Yet the storyline itself has a perfunctory feel to it. What is there left to do with a biopic about a musical superstar, after all? We see the heavy drinking, the steady stream of affairs, the good intentions and broken promises. We meet Hank’s overbearing mother (Cherry Jones) and we hear a mention or two of his absentee father. As hard as writer-director Marc Abraham tries to shape a compelling narrative, the viewer can’t shake the feeling that we’ve seen it all before.
It doesn’t help that Abraham is striving so hard to steer us away from that feeling that he leaves much of the main action offscreen. Hank’s divorce papers, for instance, accuse him of an ungovernable temper and of “wild extravagances,” but we see very little of either. While it’s something of a relief to be spared the drunken rages of so many other biopics, and while Hiddleston expertly portrays the emotions simmering under the surface, there’s so much that we don’t witness that the film has a rather subdued, reserved feel.
In short, we get a sense of what made Hank Williams like so many other musicians; we don’t get a clear sense of what made him different. Though Hiddleston performs his songs impressively, we have little context for Williams’ musical career, or for his life, either. He tells his mother that he read an article calling him a genius and that he finds it “fearful,” but without understanding more about the music of the time and what made him stand out against that background, we’re just not sure why. Similarly, we don’t get to the root of the man himself; we can’t fully grasp what drove him to success or to self-destruction.
Only one major scene really grapples with the question of Hank’s appeal as an artist and his troubles as a human being — the scene where Hank tries to explain himself during a newspaper interview. “Everybody has a little darkness in ’em,” he says. “I’m talkin’ about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to ’em, and they hear it, and they don’t have to take it home.” He goes on to talk about the letters that other troubled souls have written to him after hearing his music, pouring out their pain as if he were a “sort of Red Cross.”
It’s an intriguing idea: the artist as both scapegoat and absolver. A film that focused more heavily on Williams’ music and its piercing emotional transparency might have gained the kind of clarity and uniqueness that the filmmakers were going for. As well, a film that explored Williams’ spirituality more deeply might have brought to light some of the conflicts that troubled him. We get a very obvious hint of the old familiar tension between love of God and love of worldly pleasures, as one of the many women parading in and out of Hank’s life brings up the subject of his religion. He tells her only that he grew up in church listening to gospel music. But from the man who wrote and sang “I Saw the Light” — the song from which the film takes its title! — we might have gotten so much more.
Despite its flaws, “I Saw the Light” gives a tantalizing glimpse into a fascinating life and career, largely through the power of its performances. But in the end, it offers frustratingly little light.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics. “I Saw the Light” is rated R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.