Film explores effects of Williams’ sadness without finding cause

Film explores effects of Williams’ sadness without finding cause

‘I Saw the Light’

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olson

Directed by: Marc Abraham

Rated: PG-13


A great number of biopics based on musical performers have been critically acclaimed hits. Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline have all been given screen treatment, and those productions earned a lot of awards for the effort. So it’s a mystery why not one but two movies based on the life of famed country singer Hank Williams fail to find essence of the man.

The first feature based on Williams’ life, called “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” premiered in 1964 starring a young George Hamilton in the role with Susan Oliver playing his wife, Audrey. Hamilton lip-synced to a young Hank Williams Jr.’s voice subbing for his father’s, who died in 1952 at the age of 29. But it was a box office failure with a too-glib Hamilton failing to capture the tortured soul of Williams. That’s mostly because the movie was really just a vehicle for the rising career of the handsome Hamilton and less about Williams’ life, with much of the unsavory parts cut out by Audrey, who was a consultant on the movie.

If I remember it at all, it’s because my father was – and is – a huge Hank Williams fan. He took me to see that movie, and I recall walking from his downtown office to the Jefferson Theater, on a school night no less, to see it. But even I could tell, at age 9, that it seemed pretty melodramatic and, of course, sad at the end. That’s one thing that that movie and this new one fail at — finding the depth of Williams’ innate sadness, which was the source of inspiration for some of his greatest hits.

This new version, starring British actor Tom Hiddleston, tries to capture that lightning in a bottle, but it remains as elusive as it did in 1964. Elizabeth Olson plays Audrey in a less flattering light as before, and to its credit, this version is more factual. But it is still hollow at its core.

Hiddleston does bear a striking resemblance to the rail-thin Williams. He captures the singer’s mannerisms and speaking style, and he even sings the songs himself. But instead of using that as a foundation on which to build a powerful biopic, director Marc Abraham idles there as if that were enough to pay homage to Williams.

It isn’t enough to just mimic the inimitable plaintiveness found in Williams’ singing voice where it seemed he poured his soul into each lyric of ballads such as “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Or to blame his misery on the alcohol and drug abuse that shortened his life. That seems too easy. But what a prolific life it was, and today Williams is recognized as one of the greatest country music composers of all time.

This movie leaves you to wonder so much more about the man that wrote lyrics like: “Did you ever see a robin weep, when leaves begin to die? That means he’s lost the will to live. I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

That’s the Hank Williams I want to know more about.