When Hank Williams died in 1953, slumping unseen in the back seat of a car en route to a New Year’s Day concert in Ohio, he might have been the most decrepit 29-year-old in America. Alcohol and painkillers, aggravated by arduous touring and recording, had left the greatest country singer in the world weary, emaciated, feeble and depressed. His last charting single had been “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” and his broken body supplied the proof.
“I Saw the Light,” the new film biography of the Alabama-born troubadour, does a solid job of explaining who he was, how he fell – if not always how he felt – and what the country music universe looked like 70 years ago. It goes a country mile beyond “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the 1964 biopic that starred a stunningly miscast George Hamilton, though it doesn’t get as far as it might.
Writer-director Marc Abraham adapted “Hank Williams: The Biography,” a 2004 book by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen. The film tracks Williams from his marriage day in 1944 – he wed Audrey Sheppard in a Texaco station in Andalusia, Ala. – to the announcement from the stage that he would never give that last concert in Ohio.
Williams created an alter ego, Luke the Drifter, to record songs his record company didn’t think were commercial. In a way, that’s who we see in this narrative: The singer-songwriter, played with complete commitment by Tom Hiddleston, drifts in and out of marriages and affairs, honky-tonk clubs and radio stations, recording sessions and Grand Ol’ Opry performances, drunken stupors and apologetic reconciliations with Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) and his management.
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Other than playing for the Opry, an achievement he doesn’t seem to relish when he gets there, we never know what drives him. He fritters away his bank account and lets down fans, but success and failure seem to affect him only slightly.
This is no fault of the quietly expressive Hiddleston. The British actor, best known as Loki in the “Thor” and “Avengers” series, disappears into the character’s skinny body and twangy voice.
He sings well, too, capturing Williams’ rhythms and even yodeling in “Lovesick Blues.” What he doesn’t get is the thing Hank Williams Jr. couldn’t get when he sang for Hamilton in “Your Cheatin’ Heart”: the rawness, soul-deep loneliness and unanswerable needs that came from growing up uneducated and poor in Depression-era Alabama.
The best thing about this movie may be that it drives people to seek out the original. (Start with the two-CD set “Hank Williams: Gold,” which has the essential songs.) If you don’t know Hank’s greatness yet, you will soon be singing “I Saw the Light” with him and about him.
‘I Saw the Light’
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen.
Writer-Director: Marc Abraham.
Length: 123 minutes.
Rating: R (some language and brief sexuality/nudity).