Who’d have thought that Tom Hiddleston — the British actor best known for playing Loki in Thor movies — could make a credible Hank Williams?
Williams died in the back seat of his Cadillac as he was being driven to a show. He was 29. Williams still holds a firm place in music lore, having recorded 35 singles that made the country & western bestseller list. In the world of country music, he became a bona fide superstar.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
In I Saw the Light, named for one of Williams’ landmark songs, Hiddleston gives a fine performance as a young man who began on WSFA radio in Montgomery, Ala. Williams and his backup band, The Drifting Cowboys, performed for 15 minutes on the station’s early morning shift.
Prone to seeking comfort in the bottle, Williams didn’t always arrive for the broadcast on time.
Hiddleston, who courageously did his own singing, brings puckish energy and magnetism to Williams’ performances, and finds the trademark loneliness that infused some of Williams’ best songs, most famously So Lonesome I Could Cry.
Williams, of course, could also bring a humorous twinkle to his lyrics, as he did in Move It On Over, a song about a man who landed in the dog house after committing numerous offenses against his sweetheart, notably "playing around."
"Came in last night about a half past ten
The woman of mine she wouldn’t let me in
Move it on over
Move it on over
Move over little dog cause the big dog’s movin in."
Despite Hiddleston’s efforts, director Marc Abraham turns out a routine "troubled genius" movie as he charts Williams’ career, which was accompanied by alcoholism, drug abuse and relationships with women that caused him to take up residence in a variety of dog houses.
Joining Hiddleston are Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Williams’s first wife Audrey, and Cherry Jones, who portrays Williams’ mother. Both Olsen and Jones are good, but the movie doesn’t do enough to define Williams’ relationship with his domineering mother, and it makes only fleeting references to a mostly absent father.
At one point, Audrey wanted to sing with Williams. Not nearly in his class as a singer, Audrey put Williams’ marital loyalties to the test. Band members encouraged him to get rid of her.
Williams aficionados probably will complain about what has been left out: The story of how a young Williams learned to play guitar from an African-American blues musician name Rufus Payne constitutes the movie’s most notable omission.
Nicely photographed by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, I Saw the Light tends to get lost inside its period glow as it references important institutions of country music; e.g., The Louisiana Hayride show out of Shreveport and, of course, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
There’s a relaxed quality — almost a resignation — about Hiddleston’s desperation that rings true, but the movie gets so caught up in Williams’ personal decline that, at times, his musical talent becomes a bit of a footnote.
Abraham may have assumed that we all know why Williams deserved to be called a genius. He doesn’t really make clear the transformative powers Williams brought to his work, an assignment Hiddleston probably could have handled.
Still, Hiddleston brings more to the role than George Hamilton did in Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964). (Hank Williams Jr. did the singing in that seldom-revisited movie.)
Perhaps because Hiddleston doesn’t lip synch, he’s forced to capture Williams’s showmanship and grit. Williams seems most truly alive and happy when he’s on stage, maybe only when he’s on stage.
At about two hours in length, I Saw the Light tends to plod through various episodes in Williams’ short, increasingly dissolute life, but the movie misses the unaffected magic of Williams’ best songs.
The third verse of I’m So Lonesome takes us deeper into Williams’ defeated heart than the movie, so I’ll offer it here as compensation for some of the places I Saw the Light doesn’t go:
"Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry."