Tom Hiddleston does something quite hard to do in “I Saw the Light:” He sings the songs of country music legend Hank Williams with charisma and conviction.
He also bears a striking resemblance to the singer, who died at the early age of 29, and this helps in bringing the story of the working-class Alabama man who improbably rose to the highest ranks of country music despite — or perhaps because of — his multiple demons.
As “I Saw the Light” makes clear, the traumatic, romantically troubled life of Williams helps lead to the creation of such country classics as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Cold Cold Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Move It On Over” — the latter of which is seen as a transitional song with the same chord progression as the eventual rock hit “Rock Around the Clock.”
It also should be noted that the executive music producer, Texas native Rodney Crowell, worked many hours with Hiddleston to perfect the rhythms and intonations of Williams.
Writer/director Marc Abraham, who grew up listening to country music in Kentucky, pivots his tale on the notion that the ups and downs of Williams’ private life with his wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), were crucial to his writing songs about loneliness, or “lonesomeness,” as Williams would put it.
Audrey Williams wanted to be a country music star, just like her husband, and she inserted herself in recording sessions, much to the dismay of Williams’ associates, who considered her to be far less talented. And Williams had more problems with his mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones), who couldn’t stand Audrey and felt she was holding her son back from his eventual goal: making it to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Besides the personal turmoil, Williams had physical problems as well. He was born with Spina bifida occulta, which led to severe back troubles in adulthood — and helped contribute to his heavy use of alcohol and pain relievers. During the 1940s, the Nashville music industry tried to project a squeaky-clean image to America, but Williams wasn’t willing to hide his alcohol struggles. And he really couldn’t hide those struggles because he became rather notorious for not showing up for gigs — and not being able to sing because he was so intoxicated.
Abraham uses the character of Fred Rose, Williams’ producer and song publisher, to fill in the blanks about the singer’s troubles. Bradley Whitford plays Rose, who acted as Williams’ sounding board as well as father figure — something the real-life Williams never really had.
The narrative isn’t perfect, and there aren’t many “big moments” where all is revealed, where explanations are made in the oh-so-typical Hollywood fashion. Instead, this is a quieter movie, resting almost entirely on the ability of Hiddleston to channel the laconic charm of Williams. And on that basis, Hiddleston makes up for whatever narrative failings the overall movie has. He’s fantastic — a blast from the past reminding us of music greatness.
‘I Saw the Light’
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones
Rating: R for smoking, language, partial nudity, drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Arbor, Cinemark Hill Country, Cinemark Round Rock, Metropolitan, Tinseltown Pflugerville.