No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one’s way to the heart of the man…
Opening to Richard Attenbourgh’s Gandhi (1982)
These words echo through my mind as I think back on Marc Abraham’s new biopic of Hank Williams, I Saw The Light. Williams is not Gandhi, to be sure, but the standard remains the same. Let me be clear, Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen do terrific work here. Unfortunately, director’s choices for telling Williams’ story make it difficult to engage with Hiddleston’s character.
Abraham wrote the script, an adaptation of Colin Escott’s well-regarded Hank Williams: The Biography. He uses a linear narrative, in contrast to recent entertainment biopics like Love and Mercy. I Saw The Light covers the period between his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) in December 1944 and Williams’ death on New Year’s Day 1953 (at age 29).
This approach makes it easy to follow the events of Williams’ last few years, but also imposes limitations on the film. The audience first sees Williams (Tom Hiddleston) as a young man who is already making a steady if not stellar living as a musician. There are not many clues as to how he got started.
I’m baffled by the failure to reference Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, who taught guitar to the teen-aged Williams in exchange for money or food. The adult Williams called Payne “my only teacher”.
Williams went out of his way to give Payne credit, at a time when it was not popular to acknowledge the influence of a black musician. Returning to Payne’s hometown as a famous man, Williams tried to look him up and learned he had died some years before.
Details like these might have enabled us to connect the Hank Williams portrayed by Tom Hiddleston to the Hank Williams who wrote songs like I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the title tune. As it is, Abraham gives us more melodrama than inspiration.
Multiple marriages, womanizing, substance abuse, career swings-we have seen all this in entertainment biopics before. What we need is something to set this version of them apart.
One aspect of Williams’ life offers potential in that department. He was born with spinal bifida occulta, a spinal column disorder that causes severe back pain. At least part of his substance abuse problems stemmed from his attempts to manage chronic pain.
You have to wonder if Williams’ experiences with pain contributed to his writing lyrics like the ones in Dear Brother:
She left this world with a smile on her face
Whispering the Saviour’s name
Dear Brother, Mama left us this morning
For the city where there is no pain
Scenes of Williams composing (which are rare in this film) might have gone a long way toward distinguishing I Saw The Light from other show biz biopics. So would more footage of Hiddleston performing. He is magnetic, and those songs speak for themselves.
Hiddleston and Olsen also project genuine chemistry in their scenes together. Since she enters his life as an adult, Olsen’s character doesn’t suffer as much from the lack of backstory as Hiddleston’s does.
Audrey is a deliciously complicated woman, stronger on will than singing talent, and determined to wrest control of Hank’s career from his equally tough mother Lillie (Cherry Jones). Hank is attracted to her intensity but also feels oppressed by it at times. It would have been nice to see this relationship fleshed out beyond the clichés.
Even so, there is enough in the two lead performances to make I Saw The Light worth seeing. I would recommend reading Escott’s book besides- or listening to some of Williams’ recordings.
Somehow, I suspect Hank would prefer the latter.
Theme: Living With Pain
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