A name synonymous with Americana and country music is Hank Williams. “Legend” feels like an understatement when talking about Williams. We know his music and his impact on the industry as a whole. We know of the public stage persona as well as Williams’ battles with alcohol and womanizing. But what about the private man? Husband, father, struggling musician, most famous man in America at home sipping a beer at the kitchen table? Shining a spotlight on the legendary Hank Williams with the Oscar-worthy “I Saw the Light” is writer/director Marc Abraham who delves into the man behind the showman, honing in on the period of Hank Williams’ life from his meeting with his future wife Audrey to his rise to unparalleled fame, all unfolding before us by way of a narrative told by Williams’ manager Fred Rose (played by Bradley Whitford) following Williams’ death. The technique works well as it provides exposition without disrupting highly charged dialogue exchanges which are the cornerstone of the man who is Hank Williams.
Starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen as Hank and Audrey, respectively, each gives the performance of their careers as they revel in the complexity of the individuals and their stormy love-hate relationship. Hiddleston mesmerizes, dazzling with complete immersion and transformation as he embodies the very essence of Williams. He simmers, getting under our skins as we watch the often unlikeable Williams win us over with a smile and a song that comes from the heart. Eloquently capturing the passion we have long heard in Hank Williams songs, Hiddleston is over-powering in moments of volatility and alcohol-infused rage, the emotion of which is countered by director Abraham with lengthy single shot takes of reflective quiet and calm. Hiddleston embraces the pain of Williams’ spina bifada with tacit nuance while adding adorable hints of an almost flustered schoolboy when chastized by his mother or caught red-handed by wife Audrey doing something Hank shouldn’t be doing. Taking the performance to greater heights, Hiddleston sings every song in the film himself, and plays guitar. Going through extensive vocal training with Rodney Crowell, Hiddleston nails even the toughest vocals complete with yodeling on Williams’ classic, “Lovesick Blues.”
Elizabeth Olsen astonishes. The depth and strength of the emotion that she brings to Audrey is something we have never seen from her before, but hopefully will see again in future roles. She digs in her heels with the same ferocity and determination Audrey Williams herself was long known for. You believe Olsen as Audrey being the driving force behind Williams, pushing to get him recognition and fame while hooking herself to that star in her own need to be in the spotlight. Olsen shows us the unseen Audrey, the fashion sense (including those amazing personalized leather “Audrey” cowboy boots Audrey always wore), the self-taught business hustle and the undying love and hate that fueled Audrey and Hank. There is not a moment that feels false in Olsen’s performance.
Supporting cast is also standout starting with Cherry Jones as Williams’ abrasive and controlling mother Lillie. As electrifying as Hiddleston and Olsen are together, just watch Jones and Olsen in some key scenes. Bradley Whitford imbues Fred Rose with layers of ambiguity thanks to Rose’s role in Williams’ life – song publisher, manager, father figure – as each “hat” is often at odds with the other.
Marc Abraham takes us from Nashville to Hollywood and back again, never lingering on circumstances for long, opting instead to focus on the emotional actions and reactions of Hank and Audrey and their relationship. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures the period through lighting and lensing, celebrating the authenticity of Merideth Boswell’s production design with an intimacy both on-stage and off. And when it comes to authenticity, look no further than costume designer Lahly Poore-Ericson. The attention to detail amazes and nevermoreso than with the period perfect tones of browns and off-stage fashions worn by Hank and Audrey to the on-stage “Nudie Suits.” Western/Country Western/Hollywood History aficionados may recognize the Nudie Suits as they were the hallmark of all the “singing cowboys” and country western celebrities of the day. Made in Los Angeles by the legendary Nudie Cohn, the suits were an integral part of the Williams persona and for ‘I Saw The Light”, the making of these costumes were overseen by Nudie’s granddaughter herself.
When it comes to the music, applause applause to music producer Rodney Crowell who not only worked with Hiddleston, but re-recorded all of Williams music tracks for the film, using the same instruments and technology and style as that of Williams himself. Rounding out the musical aspect of the film, Abraham smartly hired musicians as opposed to actors faking it as musicians to comprise Hank Williams’ back-up band, The Drifting Cowboys.
Although some may be disappointed by not seeing “the expected” of a cradle to grave biopic, Marc Abraham’s storytelling approach is one that will enlighten, amaze and entertain. The light of truth shines on Hank Williams with “I Saw The Light”.
Written and Directed by Marc Abraham
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Bradley Whitford