Loki as Hank Williams?
All right, I didn’t see that one coming — but the British actor Tom Hiddleston (best known for his scene-stealing work in the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies) delivers fine work as the troubled country music legend who died at just 29.
Cause of death, according to the Williams bio this film is based on: heart failure brought on by a combination of alcohol, morphine and chloral hydrate.
In other words, before there was Jimi and Janis and Jim and so many others who lived too hard to make it to 30, there was Hank Williams.
Yet in the span of only about a decade, via songs such as “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Hey Good Lookin,’ ” “Move It On Over,” “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Williams left a giant and permanent footprint, influencing generations of country and pop-rock singer-songwriters.
In a risky move for writer-director Marc Abraham as well as Hiddleston, the actor does his own vocals instead of lip-syncing to Williams. And while it should come as no surprise Hiddleston can’t come close to matching the rich and soulful sounds of Williams, he does a serviceable job.
In a beautifully lit opening sequence, Hiddleston as Williams sits on a stool and sings the melancholy “Cold, Cold Heart.” It’s one of the many instances in the film in which Williams’ music more eloquently defines the man than anything he says offstage. (Williams wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last music star who was infinitely more expressive in his music than he was in conversation or in interviews.)
Other than the decision to have Hiddleston perform the works, “I Saw the Light” is the musical biopic equivalent of comfort food. For the umpteenth time, we get the story of a music icon from a hardscrabble background who came out of nowhere, overcame the odds through a combination of stubborn determination and blazing talent; battled demons ranging from addiction to self-destructive fits of ego to unquenchable womanizing; hit rock bottom more than once; staged a remarkable comeback or two, and then died too soon.
Hiddleston’s fellow “Avengers” star Elizabeth Olsen (she’s the Scarlet Witch) delivers a typically strong performance as Williams’ first wife Audrey, who was basically June Carter Cash without the talent.
Audrey often joined Williams on his musical radio show and onstage, much to the chagrin of his bandmates and just about anyone with working ears. The woman simply could NOT sing, and everyone including her husband knew it, but he indulged her as long as he could without it harming his own career. According to “I Saw the Light,” Audrey’s insistence on continuing her singing “career” was a main point of contention between Hank and Audrey. (The booze and the steady flow of one-night stands on the road didn’t help either.)
Bradley Whitford adds spark as Fred Rose, Hank’s producer-publisher-mentor. In black-and-white, documentary-style footage, Fred matter-of-factly details some of the highlights and lowlights of Hank’s career and personal life, in almost comically succinct fashion. (“Hank was then fired from the Opry.”)
The cinematography by Dante Spinotti, the gifted lensman behind such films as “Heat,” “L.A. Confidential” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” is something to behold in every scene. Even when “I Saw the Light” is giving us standard-issue concert scenes or simple interior sequences such as young Hank and his band playing live on the radio, the saturated colors and the subtle camera moves make every scene pop.
One of my favorite scenes in “I Saw the Light” seems almost like a throwaway. Hank and Audrey are throwing a big holiday bash at their home, celebrating Hank’s success and their happiness — but as the house glows and practically overflows with good cheer, Audrey finds Hank outside in the frigid cold, deep into the sauce, and obsessively working the fancy new remote control that opens and closes the garage door, like magic.
At first Audrey is amused, but as Hank keeps pushing that button and ignoring her pleas to come in out of the cold, we can sense her resignation. She’s never going to really understand Hank, and Hank is never really going to try to explain himself, except for when he’s onstage. The rest of the time, he’s out on his own, listening to the music in his head.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Marc Abraham, based on the book “Hank Williams: The Biography” by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William Macewen. Running time: 123 minutes. Rated R (or some language and brief sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.