In Justin Moore’s 2009 country ode to Hank Williams Jr., he sings “You gotta Hank it, you can’t sip whiskey, gotta drink it.” And so, the same type of commitment applies to any big screen adaptation focusing on Hank Sr., and while there’s plenty to appreciate in Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light, the director throws a few shots on the table but fails to offer one collective toast.
For some, it may be difficult to imagine that younger viewers have any serious interest as to how a country-western singer of the late 40s left his mark on American culture. Maybe I’m wrong. But then again, some individuals actually dismiss the achievements of Bob Dylan (don’t get me started). With that being said, I wasn’t expecting much from Abraham’s film, with Marvel’s Loki assigned to portray the icon, but Tom Hiddleston (and co-star Elizabeth Olsen) manage to bring genuine authenticity to their roles. Unfortunately, the safe direction merely provides the essentials without exploring the musical inspirations of Luke the Drifter.
If you’re not familiar with the voice of Hank Williams, there’s a particular scratch that sets him apart from the pack. That’s why he’s a legend, not because he was an outlaw that couldn’t overcome his demons. So, in the opening scene of I Saw the Light, it’s baffling that director Abraham would feature an acapella performance sans that unmistakable Hank grit. Where’s the sound that made Hank such a unique singer? Well, it’s just not there, at least not to begin with, and the moment reminds more of Hiddleston the actor singing a well-known song rather than Hank Williams thoroughly in command of his craft. Visually, it’s all there. In fact, cinematographer Dante Spinotti provides some gorgeous imagery throughout, but it’s just not enough overcome the karaoke performance of the open.
The narrative begins with an early 20s Hank Williams marrying a slightly older Audrey Sheppard in 1944 Alabama. And there’s even a Raging Bull type of montage to exemplify how blissfully happy there are. Hank’s got the live performance thing going on, and his gal joins him on stage. But only one of them shows undeniable talent. Plenty of personality traits emerge about Hank during the first half of I Saw the Light, and Hiddleston commands more and more attention with each passing scene, but the obvious star early on is Olsen, and it’s never more apparent than when a ray of sunshine appears on her face during a bedroom conversation. She’s tough, sensual and even frightening at times. Even so, Olsen’s not the focal subject, and once it’s time for Hiddleston to Hank It, he steps up his game.
As Williams finally reaches the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, Hiddleston sinks deeper into character and subsequently brings forth all the pain that fueled the singer. Hank knows damn well as to what he’s supposed to do, at least to appease the masses, but he’s going to produce on his own terms. As a result, the combination of fame and money affects his personal life, which directly makes his existing torment even more difficult to handle. Hank lives with physical pain, and that’s reason enough to get boozed up, but his emotional therapy comes through song-writing. And when a reporter confronts him with rumors of alcoholism, Hiddleston delivers a chilling line about his relationship with fans and their relationship with his pain: “They don’t have to take it home.”
By the time Hank shows up to an outdoors concert, sweating profusely in the back seat of a car, Hiddleston’s façade demonstrates the complete transformation into his role. It’s painful to watch. Organizers for the event swarm around the vehicle, obviously curious about what they see before them, yet Hank’s eyes convey a man completely detached. These people don’t know him. They just want to hear the music. Unfortunately for viewers, we don’t get to learn much about Hank either, as he drifts further and further away, desperately searching for whatever he needs to keep going. Love? Religion? Sobriety? Abraham tells a tragic story but fails to shine a light on the genesis of Hank the man.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder/editor of Vague Visages. He graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) in 2004 with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Q.V. (Quinn) lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.