I Saw the Light, a new biopic about Hank Williams (1923-1953), begins with a stunning silhouette of the iconic singer-songwriter. In the chiaroscuro of that shot, with the camera hovering above, Williams seems to float in eternity. “I wanted to place this credits sequence out of time and out of place, just somewhere that we find this man,” writer-director Marc Abraham says, during a February telephone interview. In this imagined space, Tom Hiddleston, the British actor who portrays Williams, sings an a capella version of “Cold, Cold Heart.” One of the “hillbilly” singer’s best-known compositions, it has also been recorded by many other artists, among them Dinah Washington and Aretha Franklin.
The Alabama-born inductee of both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who died at 29, never sang without accompaniment. “I wanted to force the audience to listen to Hank’s incredible words,” Abraham says. “There are hardly better lyrics written about love than ‘Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?’ or ‘In anger, unkind words are said that make the teardrops start.’” While Hiddleston’s rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart” is disappointing, when he accompanies himself on guitar, his performance is riveting. A hallmark of Williams’s style was the “crack” rhythm of an electric guitar that took the place of drums, and underscored his lyrics, which were often in rhymed verse.
Hiddleston, who bears a striking resemblance to Williams, and his co-star Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his wife Audrey, invigorate a story that is sometimes burdened by details. The movie fails to accurately represent Audrey’s influence on Williams, and underplays that of his mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). Despite its shortcomings, I Saw the Light, named for one of the singer-songwriter’s gospel songs, is a skillfully produced biopic about the “hillbilly” artist who became a pivotal figure in the history of “country” music.
With the exception of odd asides in which Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford), Williams’s music publisher and manager, speaks directly to camera, I Saw the Light unfolds chronologically, beginning with the singer’s Montgomery, Alabama WSFA radio show in the late 1930s, to glimpses of his performances at country music festivals. It then moves to recording sessions of Williams’s first hit singles after signing on with Rose in 1946, and his later acceptance into the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. Abraham, a baby boomer who spent his boyhood in Louisville, Kentucky where Williams was a staple of local radio fare, depicts him as a man with ambition whose alcoholism finally destroyed him. “You look at his life,” the writer-director says, “and you understand what his music is.”
In Hank Williams: The Biography (1994), that Abraham used as the movie’s source material, author Colin Escott writes that Williams was already drinking as a 16-year-old, when he quit high school to sing in “honky tonk” bars. In scenes at the beginning of I Saw the Light, Abraham illustrates how Williams’s addiction led to him being fired from WSFA at age 19, a pattern that would be repeated many times in the next 10 years. Alcohol, along with an overdose of an illegal sedative for chronic back pain, led to Williams’s untimely death in 1953. During his six-year recording career that began in 1947, he had 30 songs on the Billboard country and western chart, seven of them at Number 1, nearly all of which he wrote or co-wrote, sometimes with Fred Rose. Hiddleston sings several of them, including “Hey, Good Lookin,’” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).”
I Saw the Light is distinguished by Dante Spinotti’s (Public Enemies, 2009) outstanding cinematography, and Meredith Boswell’s (The Homesman, 2014) equally fine production design, which result in a visual style that is evocative without being nostalgic. In post-production, Abraham decided against a score, a risky proposition that pays off; while audiences may experience the absence of a score as slowing the pace of the story, it serves to spotlight Williams’s music and Hiddleston’s performance of it. “Every time I put a score underneath the scenes, it made it mawkish,” the writer-director says, using as an example a long sequence in which Williams pleads with Audrey to annul their divorce.
Shifting the emphasis to Hiddleston’s singing meant that Abraham needed an excellent re-recording mix (the final mix of all elements of the soundtrack). That credit goes to Rick Kline, a sound man whose career stretches back to the era of 35 mm. “I told Tom he would not sound like Hank Williams,” Abraham recalls, “but I didn’t want mimicry. I wanted acting.” Hiddleston could sing, the writer-director explains, but he had to learn to yodel—and to master Williams’s idiosyncratic phrasing.
In his biography, Escott states, unequivocally, that Lillie was responsible for Williams’s early successes. Not only did she get her son noticed by a WSFA producer, but when he later took a job as a dock worker, Lillie booked gigs for him so that in 1944, he returned to singing and songwriting. I Saw the Light begins later that year, when Williams met and married Audrey. She was as ambitious as Lillie, but by all biographical accounts, Audrey was also the love of Williams’s life. Unlike the devoted spouse in Gene Nelson’s earlier biopic, Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), in I Saw the Light she is portrayed as a vindictive wife who has an abortion to spite her husband. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Asked about his characterization of Audrey, who was often alone weeks at a time with two young children while her husband was away and, according to Escott, picking up underage girls, the writer-director replies, “Your point is well-taken. I think Lizzie had the intelligence to let you understand the woman as opposed to her being a straight shrew—and she has a weight to her even though she’s only 26 years old. Hank was a womanizer, but I did not want Audrey to be painted with a black hat.” When Audrey managed her husband, she got him his first audition at the Grand Ole Opry, and suggested he seek out Rose, facts that get short shrift in the film. Rather than a man buffeted by two controlling women, Williams’s creative life was made possible by the stability Lillie and Audrey provided.
To Abraham’s credit, I Saw the Light is not driven by a desire to lionize its subject. Instead, the charismatic performer, for whom less than 30 minutes of video remains, emerges as a troubled man, often unsure of his own gifts, and aware that he does not measure up as a husband or a father. Hiddleston’s quality of aloofness in the role, in addition to defining Williams’s personality, lends an enigmatic dimension to Abraham’s vision of him that is perhaps a reflection of his own reservations about the art of biography.
In a particularly moving scene in the film, Williams explains to a reporter that he sings about anger, sorrow and shame. “I show it to them and they hear it,” he says of his audience, “and they don’t have to take it home.” Audrey best expressed what her wayward husband got in return: “When he walked on the stage,” Escott quotes her as saying, “it was the only time Hank was ever really sure of himself.” Abraham got that part right through a bit of typecasting—by hiring an actor as confident in his abilities as Williams had been about his talents. What he got wrong about Hank Williams was Audrey. Her “cold” and “cheatin” heart kept Williams alive. He died less than a year after their divorce was finalized.