“Everybody has a little darkness in ‘em.”
Hank Williams is one of the names that is synonymous with country music. He has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriting Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There are so many songs associated with him that it’s hard to believe that he died when he was only 29. I Saw the Light is a celebration of Williams and his music from writer-director Marc Abraham.
The film shows us Williams’s (Tom Hiddleston) life from the mid-1940s, when he is playing on a local radio station and in road houses, until his death from a heart attack on New Year’s Day 1953 on the way to a show. Hiddleston, who does his own singing in the film, does a wonderful job of creating a persona that evokes the legend of Hank Williams. The opening song, sung by Hiddleston standing alone in the spotlight, sets the stage for an admiration of this music. The film follows his meteoric career, his tempestuous relationship with his wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), the domineering influence of his mother Lillie (Cherry Jones), and his struggles with alcoholism and pain medication to treat his spina bifida.
While the film has a good deal that will appeal to audiences (especially the performances and the sampling of Williams’s music), the film is a bit superficial. I came away from watching this feeling like I didn’t really get a chance to know him and to appreciate the demons he was dealing with. Those demons are more than just his addictions. We see a glimpse of his ambition, but not really the struggle to achieve his goals—nor the reasons he let it all begin to slip away while he was on top. His relationships with women—Audrey and Lillie especially—were never easy, but we aren’t really sure why.
We also don’t see anything of the spiritual side of his life. The one line in the film that points to that is when he says “I made a little poem to the Lord. It might turn into a song.” The implication is this is the genesis of the song that lends its name to the title of the film—although we only hear him singing that song quietly to his infant son as a lullaby. (The song does come up again at his death.) Williams was a man who knew about the dark side of life, but who also had a foundation that gave him hope even with all the troubles in his life. His saw his songs not only as the darkness that everybody has within, but also as an expression of the joy that also is available to us. This combination of a flawed life and the understanding that there was something that could overcome those flaws, I think, is a side of Williams’s life that could have been examined a bit. He is, after all, the one who penned:
I wandered so aimless life filed with sin
I wouldn’t let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light.
Photos courtesy of Sony Picture Classics