There are iconic figures so fascinating, we just need to know more about them. Widely considered America’s first Country music superstar, Hank Williams was there even before Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. His songs were mega-hits in the late ’40s and early ’50s, but have been successfully covered by countless artists since then.
The Great American Songbook includes numerous Hank tunes, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’” and “Cold, Cold Heart.” B.J. Thomas introduced his career covering the soulful “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Creedence Clearwater enjoyed a hit with “Jumbalya,” and country legend George Strait includes “Lovesick Blues” in many of his concerts. Even Bob Dylan and Norah Jones have covered Hank’s songs.
Maybe our expectations were too high, but writer-director Marc Abraham repeatedly missed the mark and left “A Tear in My Beer.” Much of the inspiration for the songs of Hyrum King “Hank” Williams come from his tortured soul, but you won’t learn much about the cause here. Building his career as a drunken womanizer, Hank also recorded religious songs under the name “Luke the Drifter.” This is only mentioned in passing.
Significant pieces of his story are omitted, but the real frustration was the parts included. Too many disjointed scenes were incoherent and so incomplete they left us hanging, which repeatedly killed the momentum. Fragmented thoughts became missed opportunities, while other times we waited too long for something, anything, to happen.
Starring in the lead role of this dirt poor songster from the Deep South is classically trained British actor Tom Hiddleston, better known as the evil Loki in “Thor.” Surprisingly, Hiddleston nails the part, from the look, voice (his own singing) and country charm. In preparation, Country music veteran Rodney Crowell, a self-proclaimed keeper of the flame, provided a crash course in Hank Williams singing and guitar strumming.
Californian Elizabeth Olsen plays Hank’s wife, Audrey. Olsen carries just enough Southern drawl to be credible without creating a caricature, while Bradley Whitford plays a Nashville music director, seen mostly in vignettes. The sets accurately depict the period piece, and cinematography by Dante Spinotti (“L.A. Confidential”) is superb.
The film attempts to chronicle Hank’s rise to fame and its tragic effect on his health and personal life. However, it’s more likely that his rise to fame only accentuated his self-inflicted wounds. Hank was eager to share that “General Grant was drunk by 3 p.m. every day but still won Vicksburg!” It doesn’t take long for that line to get old.
Jockeying for Hank’s attention was his omnipresent mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). Together, they bask in his first hit and then first number one single, “Move It on Over,” which most people think of as George Thorogood’s signature song. Hank shared with New York journalist James Dolan (David Krumholttz), “Everybody has a little darkness in them and I show it to them; folk music and hillbilly music are sincere.”
Although not fully explored here, Hank fused Hillbilly, Western and Folk music into a new “Country” genre with songs like “Honky Tonk Blues,” more recently made popular by Dwight Yokum, and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” by the Tractors. It eventually bridged to more traditional Country music as well as the Rockabilly sound of Elvis Presley.
“I Saw the Light” is 123 minutes, rated R for language and brief nudity. Hank Williams’ music was embarrassingly hokey to those of us growing up on Elvis, Beatles and The Beach Boys. It’s still hokey, but wonderfully so. Hank’s sorrowful lyrics and twangy tunes are the foundation of so much of what we have listened to since.
We wanted more from this movie; more music and more of what inspired and challenged this tuneful genius to write his 36 groundbreaking hit songs that inspired generations. Hank wallowed in self-pity in “Alone and Forsaken,” and died at 29 years old from alcoholism and drugs. His final release was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
Ron’s Rating: C- Leigh’s Rating: C-