As a child, the sounds of Hank Williams Sr. (along with countless other old-school country legends) echoed throughout our house. My father, a singer and musician, loved the lonesome wail of Williams. Back in his drinking days, dad would get pinned and moan the blues along with Hank. When he sobered up, dad switched his loyalties to George Jones – another tear-soaked singer who could rip the heart from your chest with song – but Hank was still there in spirit and dad’s voice.
When I first heard they would finally make a modern movie on Hank, I was excited. My mind flashed to Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash biopic that starred Joaquin Phoenix. While a bit over-the-top, Walk The Line told the Cash story very well. If they could do something similar with Hank, it would be a movie worth watching. Then it was announced that Tom Hiddelston would playing the role of Hank Williams. My heart sank. Loki? As Hank Williams?
Hiddleston is a great actor. No question. But an English actor playing Hank Williams? Get out. The news got worse. Hiddleston would also be doing the singing in the movie. The fact that one of my favorite songwriters Rodney Crowell would be involved on the music end and helping Hiddleston prepare for the film, did nothing to extinguish my doubt. I vowed I wouldn’t see the movie. Last night I broke that vow (and wasted two hours of my life).
I Saw The Light was painful to watch. Based on the book, Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and Bill MacEwen, the film was dead on arrival. Hiddleston comes across as one dimensional. His vocal performances were better than expected, but lacked the pain, passion and authenticity of Hank’s. Having the actor lip-sync would have been better, but even that wouldn’t have saved this film.
Hiddleston is just unbelievable as Hank. And who makes a movie about Hank Williams, but doesn’t put any of the singer-songwriter’s recordings in it?
Having read a number of books on Hank Williams, including the one I Saw The Light was based on, I can say without hesitation that the writers of the film completely missed the mark. The story crawls along slowly as Hiddleston does his best to conjure up the ghost of Hank. Sadly, Hank’s ghost is nowhere to be found. Rather than dig deep into the demons that lived inside his head and inspired his songs and lonesome wail, the writers simply painted Hank as a complete asshole.
The Hank Williams story is deeper and far more complex than I Saw The Light (and can hardly be shared in a short opinion piece). If you want to know about Hank, read Jay Caress’ book, Hank Williams: Country Music’s Tragic King, or Paul Hemphill’s Lovesick Blues: The Life Of Hank Williams. Better yet, pick up the Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits CD. Nothing tells the story of Hank better than the man’s music.