Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Hank Williams Biopic That Doesn't Quite Sing

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in <em>I Saw the Light</em>.
Sam Emerson
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light.

The weepiest man in country-music history, Hank Williams is an unlikely icon of the usually macho genre. But the composer of "Weary Blues from Waitin'," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" was firmly rooted in the South. As he shifted from blues to gospel to "hillbilly," he remained a good ol' boy.

The same can't be said of Tom Hiddleston, who plays Williams in the reverent but clumsy I Saw the Light. The British actor, best known as Loki in a series of bombastic Marvel Comics movies, shows intense commitment; he starved himself to a Williams-like gauntness, and sang rather than lip-synced. Yet Hiddleston is just too eerie to walk the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. At times, he seems more Ziggy Stardust than Hank Williams.

Maybe that's what writer-director Marc Abraham had in mind. After all, the Alabama-born Williams was something of a down-home alien. He was protean and wildly prolific, tormented by ambition as well as chronic back pain, and he packed several biopics worth of bad behavior into a mere 29 years. Perhaps they should have titled the film The Man Who Fell To Earth.

But that wouldn't be fair to the movie's main attraction, Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Williams's first wife, Audrey Sheppard. Olsen makes her as complicated as the man who was her spouse for almost eight years, and a lot more believable. Audrey deals with the kids and her husband's hunger for booze, painkillers, and extracurricular sex, while also pursuing a career as a singer. She's not very good, but not as absurdly lousy as the protagonist of Marguerite.

The scenes in which Hank and Audrey shoot off sparks — whether of passion or discord — are the movie's best. Hiddleston, who was tutored by Rodney Crowell, also acquits himself well in the musical numbers, especially the uptempo and yodeling ones. He doesn't sound that much like Williams, which is most noticeable during the melancholy tunes, but he does seem genuine.

Hopping around the years from 1944 to 1953, I Saw the Light presents moments gleaned from Colin Escott's Hank Williams: The Biography with no particular regard to their significance. Abraham's script often keeps important events off-screen, while focusing on backstage minutiae. Music publisher and record executive Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) is a recurring figure, and Williams's relationships with the Grand Old Opry (turbulent) and Hollywood (stillborn) are sketchily documented.

These episodes don't clarify much about Williams' character, and even less about his path-clearing style. Washington-area country-music impresario Connie Gay makes an appearance, but there's no mention of Rufus Payne, the African-American street musician who gave guitar lessons to Williams, shaping the younger man's pre-Elvis fusion of blues and country. Also missing is any consideration of how Williams reconciled his hell-raising life with his political conservatism and apparently sincere Christian beliefs reflected in the title song.

Those are major omissions, since the history of how modern American music was forged is still hotly contested. Several previous movies, including 2012's The Last Ride, have attempted to make sense of Williams's life. I Saw the Light should have taken its cue from its unearthly star and pursued a more cosmic mission.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.