“I Saw The Light”

 

            Tom Hiddleston does an amazing job portaying country singer Hank Williams.  There's even a strong physical resemblance (for which the London-born, Cambridge-bred Mr. Hiddleston reportedly shed many pounds).  So why wasn't the movie more appealing?  Well, maybe because it's just too difficult to re-enact that nascent era of country music, in the late 1940's and early 1950's, when people began turning away from the “big band”-type orchestral music as lively but artless.  What Hank Williams brought to the stage---believe it or not---was a little bit of soul.

            No, we're not talking about what would later become “soul” music, which also had its roots in speakeasy honkytonk, Dixieland jazz, and Gospel music.  We're talking about what Hank Williams himself describes as the darkness inside:  people feeling anger, misery, sorrow, and shame, and he says he shows it to 'em, but they don't have to take it home.  He used simple chord structures and basic instrumentation:  rhythm guitar, fiddle, bass, slide guitar.  Nothing fancy.  Yes, when Hank Williams hit the music scene, the big hits were “Peg Of My Heart” and “Let It Snow”:  music to entertain, lightly, but not tap into any dark emotions.  Hank Williams had just the right combination of raw talent and stage presence, without seeming to be too slick, like a tuxedoed Perry Como.  Hank Williams also brought the hard-partying, wink-at-the-pretty-girls kind of raw-boned ruffian appeal, and he really did live the celebrity life off-stage.  The problem is, he became a victim of his own success, and excess.

            The movie begins with a poignant scene:  a quick marriage by a Justice of the Peace in a garage.This was Hank William's first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who sometimes sang harmonies with Hank on stage, but really didn't have the talent to be a star herself, which, according to this biopic, was always a source of tension between them.  (It didn't help that his Mother, formerly his road manager, never liked her.) They did have a son, Hank Jr., who would become famous in his own right, but that was much later.  When Hank went on the road with the boys in the band, he enjoyed the attention of the beautiful young women, one of whom, Billie Jean (Maddie Hasson), he married after divorcing Audrey, and the other, Bobbie (Wrenn Schmidt), he had a child with, but never married.  He could only tell her that he had a talent for messing things up in his life.

            Like so many talented artists, Hank Williams had a drinking problem.  Some say that it was to mask the pain from a spina bifada condition.  Others say he was as addicted to alcohol as he was to his constant cigarrettes, which surely didn't help his congenital heart condition any.  He died very young (29) of heart disease, but left behind a tremendous legacy of musicality that's near-legendary:  “Your Cheatin' Heart,” “Move It On Over,” “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold, Cold Heart.”  Maybe his tumultuous personal life helped pen these songs, but Hank himself said that nobody writes songs, they just come to you.  Maybe so.  But they came to him more than they did a lot of others.

            The movie depicts Hank Williams as ambitious to get into the Grand Ole Opry, but otherwise sort of aimless, like there was no real direction in his life.  And no stability, either.  Maybe the movie tracks his personal life too closely, but it, too, feels aimless, like it has no rudder.  It's just a series of life-scene vignettes interspersed with some well-rehearsed stage performances.  And maybe that's what his life was really like.  But somehow it doesn't make very good theater.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Do you like music that taps into your “dark side”?

2)                  What other hard-partying music stars can you name?  How was their life reflected in their music? And vice versa?

3)                  What's your favorite country song?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association