VIFF review: I Saw the Light

In an early scene in I Saw the Light, country music star Hank Williams marries his first wife, Audrey Sheppard, in a rainy gas station in Andalusia, Alabama. This is the kind of folksy Americana that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hank Williams song. Fortunately for Director Marc Abraham, Williams lived a life that lends itself easily to mythology and there’s not much to do besides stick to the script.  

Based on Hank Williams: The Biography, I Saw the Light focuses on a period of nine years in Williams’ life, moving from his first marriage in 1944 to his death in 1953. There are no sentimental shots of a young Hank plucking at his first guitar. Instead, he arrives on-scene more or less a fully formed country singer with a modestly successful radio program and ambitious designs on Nashville.

Next comes the sharp upward trajectory: Soon, he’s drawing huge crowds, performing at the Grand Ole Opry and flirting with self-destruction. It’s a compressed schedule, but he crams a lot of living into it producing a lifetime’s worth of music including 35 Top 10 singles and a legacy that has inspired divergent artists from Louis Armstrong to Ryan Adams. 

Williams is played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Hiddleston who’s flexing his acting muscles after some years spent in the Marvel Universe as Loki in Thor and The Avengers. He manages to convey both boyish enthusiasm and a sense of premature world-weariness with a grim, sweaty sheen that’s concealed in the era’s real-life publicity photos.  

The heart of the movie comes from Williams’ relationship with his first wife, Audrey, played by fellow Marvel alumni Elizabeth Olsen. The men in the film tend to visibly wince when she comes on-screen. She has real, palpable chemistry with Hiddleston and it’s easy to find yourself rooting for their relationship despite her doomed designation as “Hank Williams’ first wife.”

Once Audrey is out of the picture, there’s not much left to hope for. Williams remarries, drinks heavily and becomes increasingly clammy as time wears on. He suffered from chronic pain and died very young at 29 of heart damage worsened by alcohol and veterinary tranquilizers. It’s an abrupt end to the movie, but not completely surprising. There may be a version of Chekhov’s Law specifically written for the music biopic: if your hero winces in the first act, he’ll be pushing daisies by the third. 

The movie concludes with Williams’ funeral and a spontaneous group rendition of the movie’s namesake song, I Saw the Light. It’s another moment that would be almost unbearably melodramatic if it weren’t for the fact that it actually happened. When your movie’s protagonist is a rock and roll hero, what else can you do besides write him a legend?