I Saw the Light
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The opening scene of I Saw the Light shows Hank Williams Sr. (Tom Hiddleston) singing to admiring fans. A spotlight streams down on his head, but his cowboy hat throws his face into shadow. It’s a fitting metaphor for the rest of the film: Though Williams basks in fame, he never escapes the darkness of sin.
Filmed like a concert tour documentary with shaky-camera shots and intimate behind-the-stage moments, I Saw the Light follows Williams’ career from his first success to his early death. Writer-director Marc Abraham spends less time on the country singer’s creative process than on his downward spiral, earning the film’s R rating for substance abuse, language, and sexual content (including a brief scene of sexual nudity).
The resulting portrait of Williams elicits more pity than outrage. He can’t escape his pride or drunkenness, leaving disappointed fans and heartbroken women in his wake. When a reporter asks why he writes the songs he does, Williams responds, “Everybody has a little darkness in ’em. … I show it to ’em, and they gonna have to take it home.” He wants his listeners to realize their lives all reflect a bit of a depressing country song.
British actor Hiddleston, who recreates many of Williams’ country hits, spent six weeks learning to speak and sing with a Southern accent. Though his performances do not begin to match Williams’ nasal twang and delivery, even diehard fans may find room to appreciate the soul in Hiddleston’s voice. Abraham, when asked about his choice of actor, said he wanted to create an homage to the artist, not a perfect replication of his songs: “I think [Williams] is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.”
Williams fans will discover, though, that the film glosses over the singer’s religious roots. Though it mentions his gospel alter ego, Luke the Drifter, and makes “I Saw the Light” its thematic center, the film underplays the gospel-heavy songs that implied Williams’ personal struggles with halfhearted repentance and backsliding. Williams’ religious lyrics and recitative parables influenced later country and folk musicians, including Bob Dylan.
In the film, when a friend asks if he is a religious man, Williams responds that he went to church as a boy, “listening to gospel.” The tragedy of Williams’ life—and this film—is that it didn’t seem to reflect the gospel he heard.
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