Have you ever considered the fact that, in 1951, Hank Williams actually wrote “Hey Good Lookin’ “? That, for the first 175 years of American history, those words and that melody weren’t already part of our shared heritage? Williams didn’t just pluck it out of the air, of course. Cole Porter rhymed Hey, good-lookin’ with Say, what’s cookin’? a full decade earlier, but it took an earthier fellow than Porter to make that couplet into, all at once, doggerel that could please a preschooler, a horny come-on fit for the roadhouse, and a suggestion of everyday domestic romance.
It’s a creation of genius, yet also so plainspoken and familiar that to imagine it being authored takes some work. Much easier to presume it’s just always been there and always will.
Or, to put it another way: My mother tells the story of singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to herself as a little girl, back when it was new. Her aunt on the farm in Arkansas hadn’t heard it yet and asked, with real concern, “Dear, what’s got you so sad?”
Writer-director Marc Abraham’s life-of-the-legend Hank Williams drag I Saw the Light (starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen) makes no big deal of these songs or their composition. It never shows the study of American mores and vernacular it would take to craft music so plain and perfect it could pass for what a kid feeling blue just makes up. Perhaps it’s tastefulness that inspired the omission. It’s not too difficult to depict the circumstances that might move Ice Cube to write “Fuck tha Police,” but the filmmakers here know better than to give us a light bulb clicking on over Hank’s head when he hears how those rhymes lock together in the midst of some kitchen seduction. Straight Outta Compton also could capture the disbelieving joy and power that audiences felt rapping along with N.W.A’s denunciation of police brutality — considerably more difficult to dramatize than the keening response that a simple song of loneliness might stir.
Sadly, the filmmakers never dare try. (Don Cheadle’s upcoming Miles Ahead also omits scenes of its hero finding inspiration, but at least that uncertain film has an excuse: It’s set in the years when Miles Davis couldn’t find any.) If anything, I Saw the Light is too humble about Hank, about his songs, about why we remember him. It’s like some first-time Opry performer just so happy to be up there doing its thing that it doesn’t remember to win us over. It suffers, I suspect, from Hollywood’s post–Walk Hard fear of committing to howler clichés in the musician biopic. Jake Kasdan’s towering 2007 comedy stands as one of the most consequential works of film criticism in the past ten years: It killed dead the genre it parodied.
Walk Hard so soundly trashed everything dumb and false in Ray, Walk the Line, and The Buddy Holly Story that, since then, movies like Love & Mercy or the knockout Get On Up have chucked away pat redemptive arcs, terrible expository dialogue, and the very idea that the lives of troubled geniuses can be boiled down to easy three-act structures. Formulaic biopics croaked the moment Jenna Fischer, playing the wife of drug-addled country star Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly), announced, in garish hippie finery just after the story leaped ahead a couple of years, “The Sixties are an important and exciting time.”
I Saw the Light risks none of that. Abraham eschews not just cliché but also context and meaning. Hank never exhibits any religion, and he never walks the straight-and-narrow, but the film ends with a communal singalong of “I Saw the Light,” his song vowing a life of joyous Christian piety. How did Hank come to write it? What did he feel about not living up to it? Was it a formal exercise, a hit he knocked off, or a confession of the Hank that he wished he could be? The film bearing that song’s title does nothing to earn it. It’s like Abraham is only dramatizing the first line: “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin.”
At first Abraham seems to have an argument he’s trying to make, just as Get On Up has urgent truths to tell about James Brown. He opens with Hiddleston singing “Cold, Cold Heart” a cappella in some dreamscape honky-tonk. (Maybe it’s the hillbilly heaven Tex Ritter and Eddie Dean promised.) Cut to Williams, age 22 and not yet a star, getting hitched to Audrey (Olsen) in a gas station. Abraham then follows marriage, career, and hell-raising — the three overlapping spheres of Hank — over the next six or so years, until the hero’s death.
Hank and Audrey fight and love in scenes meaty enough to be worth the actors’ time, and there’s a funny recurring bit about Audrey’s desire to be a singer herself. (Unlike her man, she’s no natural.) On two different occasions, characters proclaim that it’s Hank’s own suffering that moves him to write and sing the songs that help his fans feel better about their own heartache, but Abraham rarely finds a way to show us the ends of this loop. The exception: a strong scene of Hank premiering “Why Don’t You Love Me” and coming on to a sweet young thing in the audience even as he bares his soul.
Hiddleston grows gaunt and wild-eyed as the film passes. I found him more convincing in the late reels, when he’s turned mean and antsy after Audrey has left him and he’s bouncing between potential next wives. The second of Abraham’s ideas seems to be that, without Audrey to tend to him, Hank became ever more lost. But the director would never be so gauche as to have a character say that out loud, just as he won’t show us Hank discovering that his music reaches people.
Before Walk Hard, a Hank movie might have offered a montage of his hits storming the charts, shown us waitresses and mechanics singing along to their radios, or flashed back to young white boy Hank in Greenville, Alabama, learning guitar from a black bluesman named Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne. Abraham leaves all that out, but he comes up with too little to replace it. The songs arrive from nowhere, un-sweated-over, their origins and depths unplumbed. Early on, Hank’s mother (Cherry Jones) marvels that only God could know where her wild boy’s gifts came from, and Abraham seems to have thrown up his hands, too.
Hiddleston does his own singing. He can get the songs over, and he tears with lusty zest into “Lovesick Blues,” but he lacks the buoyant rawness, the yawping self-pity, and the high-lonesome shiver — more elements of genius that the movie seems shy to explore. I Saw the Light ignores Williams’s composing, denies us his voice, and is too spooked by sentimentality to show us just what his music touches off in people. Instead, we see him trudge to the grave, but if you don’t have the songs in you already you might just wish he’d hurry up about it. Nice buttery-light American-past production design, though.
I Saw the Light
Written and directed by Marc Abraham
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens March 25, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center