Arts & Events

I Saw the Light: A Brilliant Performance

Gar Smith
Friday April 01, 2016 - 01:06:00 PM

Opens April 1 at the Elmwood in Berkeley

Hank Williams remains the quintessential American country-western superstar. Both a singer and composer, his genius with a lyric and his charisma as a performer had an entire generation singing along to a steady parade of unforgettable Hank Williams tunes. He was so prolific that even after his death on New Year's Day 1953, his music continued to light up the Hit Parade. During his tempestuous, alcohol-fueled, pill-popping career he turned out 33 hit singles. Thirty reached the top 10 and eight reached number one. Even after his death, seven posthumous compositions landed in the Top Ten and three went all the way to number one.

So it's not surprising that someone would want to make a film about this dirt-poor boy poet from Mount Olive, Alabama. But who would imagine that Hank Williams would come to life on the screen in a portrayal by a British actor. (Can you imagine an American actor traveling to London to assume the title role in a biopic about John Lennon or Sir Elton John?) 


I Saw the Light tells an overly familiar tale of a celebrity performer whose public success runs cover for a dissolute private life riddled with pain and frustration. Tom Hiddleston absolutely inhabits this performance. Like Williams, Hiddleston is tall and lean, with a narrow face and a knowing, thin-lipped smile that makes him a dead-ringer for the country singer. And, to top it off, when Hiddleston picks up a guitar and steps up to the microphone, he sounds just like Hank. (Bonus: There's a soundtrack album with Hiddleston's covers of six Hank Williams classics.) 

Hiddleston's uncanny Impersonation of Hank Williams is matched by an equally strong performance by Elizabeth Olsen as Williams' first wife, Audrey. 

I grew up listening to Hank Williams on the radio. A lot of my relatives were displaced hillbillies, driven to California on the winds of the dustbowl. The drawls and the body language in this film ring true for me. In one scene, Hank's helpless, skunk-drunk amusement as he stands alone in his backyard using a remote control device to raise and lower his garage door—over and over again—seems like a memory from my own childhood. I had uncles like that. 

I Saw the Light is a well-told tale, written and directed by Mark Abraham and based on Hank Williams: The Biography by Collin Escott with George Merritt and William McEwan. The film has been hailed as "compelling and historically accurate" and Williams' granddaughter, Holly, has praised the film for portraying granddaddy Hank "in all of his grit and glory and genius." 

Director Abraham was determined to tell his story as accurately as possible, filming in the same locations where his real-life characters had lived, struggled and performed. Many of the folks in the film are actual country western musicians, not Hollywood actors. The music was performed and recorded in a Nashville studio set up to emulate a Hank Williams recording session, with Hiddleston and the Drifting Cowboys all performing live before a single microphone. 

Abraham explained that the film "doesn't manipulate events or make up scenes to illustrate [Williams'] talent. It delves into the people, the actual places, and the simple everyday moments that made him who he was. Then came the music. The leap from one to the other is, for me, where all the power lies." 

Looking back, many people have characterized Hiram King "Hank" Williams as "the first rock star." He was the first CW singer to become a national sensation. Everybody knew his music and sang along to his songs whenever they rang out of their radios and jukeboxes. Unlike the rest of the era's pop singers, Williams offered a rebellious, emotional dark side. His songs were filled with longing, heartbreak and desperation—the wounded, wailing core of Country. Can you imagine Dean Martin or Bing Crosby singing a song like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"? 

Years after his death, Bob, Bruce and Keith all speak reverently of Hank as the first link in the chain of rock and roll—the guy who took the blues and made it blaze. (Listen to Williams singing "Move It On Over" and see if you don't hear the echoes of rock's first mainstream anthem, "Rock Around the Clock.") 

Like the prototypical rock stars of the 60s, Hank Williams died young, burning out like a brilliant self-destructing meteor plunging through the cold sky. 

His songs are so much a part of our culture—songs like "Cold, Cold Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'," "Honky Tonkin'"—that we sometimes don't pause to marvel at the incredible poetry that Williams built into his lyrics. Just consider the chorus from "Jambalaya": 

Jambalaya, and a crawfish pie and a file' gumbo 

'Cause tonight I'm gonna see my ma chère amie-o 

Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh 

Son of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou. 

There is almost no sense of artifice in this film. You simply accept that these are real people. Hank and Audrey are absolutely present in this film. 

Abrams does rely on one shortcut however: the use of staged black-and-white "interviews" with Hank's producer-friend-and-guardian Fred Rose. These newsreel-style clips provide perspective and direction that guide us through Hank's tumultuous career—not to mention his bouts of alcoholism, womanizing, confused and bleary-eyed performances, missed appearances and a series of torrid and tormented marriages. 

Another thing that adds to the depth and authenticity of the film is the portrayal of the female characters. From Hank's mother Lillie to his girlfriends and each of his wives, everyone is a strong and fully realized personality. These are women who stand up to their men and take no guff. 

If there is one thing missing from this portrayal, it is this: We never see Hank in the process of writing a song. Did he ever scratch his head over a rhyme or scratch out one line for a better one? He always seems to step on stage with a perfectly accomplished song already on the tip of his lips. 

Actor Hiddleston offers an appreciative review of Abrams' work as director and screenwriter. "Mark had written Hank Williams with such compassion and lack of judgment," the actor relates. "He had written the man behind the icon. He had somehow tapped into the heartbeat of a legend, with all his vulnerabilities and fallibilities, his weakness, pain and grief, and at the same time, his joy and playfulness, mischief and energy, and white-hot talent." 

"Hank's truth changed the landscape of American music. He sang what he knew about. And what he knew about was going out and meeting girls, getting into trouble, falling in love and falling out of love, loss and loneliness. His songs were so simple, but they were so true." 

I Saw the Light is, naturally enough, filled with great musical moments both on, and off stage. In one haunting scene late in the film, Hank is sprawled on a sofa, wasted and seemingly half-conscious. He looks washed up. And then he turns to Fred Rose and announces he's come up with "little song I want to try out." And he proceeds to painfully croak out a tune that we barely recognize as his classic, "Your Cheatin' Heart." 

It's all in here—from Hank's days on the WSM Barn Dance radio broadcasts to the Louisiana Hayride and all the way to the Grand Ole Opry

As the years (and marriages) roll by, we watch as Hank struggles with drinking and drugs, while his abuses and failures end his marriages and endanger his career. We see the damage this leaves behind on his spirit, his demeanor, and on his face. By the time he climbs into the car that will carry him towards his final performance, he looks like man who's weathered 40-plus difficult years on Earth. 

And that only makes his epitaph all the more shocking: 

When he died, he was only 29 years old.