In January 1947, Hank Williams’ mother Jessie Lillybelle Skipper was driving her son back from a performance in Fort Deposit, Ala. Williams, drunk and asleep in the backseat, awoke to his mother’s declaration that she “just saw the light” of Montgomery in the distance. “I Saw the Light” would become the title of one of the singer-songwriter’s most iconic songs, and now, 68 years after the track’s first release, it is the title of the new biopic from director, producer and writer Marc Abraham. Based on the book “Hank Williams: The Biography” by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen, the film focuses on the man behind the music, from Williams’ rise to fame as one of country music’s most popular and influential performers to his tragic death at the young age of 29.
Tom Hiddleston, a British actor best known for his role as the villanous Loki in the Marvel universe, may seem like an unlikely choice to portray the American icon. Hiddleston himself admits as much.
“I was born in London in 1981,” Hiddleston said in an interview with The Hoya this week. “He was born in Alabama in 1923. … There’s a gap there.”
Hiddleston, eager to step outside his comfort zone, said he was eager to challenge himself with the uncharacteristic performance. He worked tirelessly to prepare for the part, and adopted an entirely new persona. His suave, mellifluous British accent, one of his most distinctive features, is replaced by a charming Southern drawl. Hiddleston conducted extensive research on Williams and country music, living for months in Tennessee with a country singer. There, he learned to play guitar and sing in Williams’ distinct style. The preparations paid off: His performances in the film are some of its finest moments.
The film begins as Hiddleston sings an a cappella rendition of the blues, honky-tonk classic “Cold, Cold Heart.” Face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat and swathed in theatrical lighting, the music legend comes to life in Hiddleston’s captivating gaze and crooked smile. It is a stunning scene, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The movie combines the compelling story of a troubled music legend with a mesmerizing leading actor and excellent supporting cast. Hiddleston brings real passion to a difficult role about a difficult life: one marked by alcoholism, womanizing, illness and opioid addiction.
Abraham has crafted a beautiful and accurate portrayal of Williams’ life. Hiddleston conveys the pain and desperation that accompanied Williams’ declining mental and physical condition. Still, his music was always exceptional, and Hiddleston’s surprisingly impressive vocal talent and rhythm guitar expertise, skills he acquired only after being cast as Williams, shine throughout. These elements stand in stark contrast to Williams’ increasingly dark personal life, and Hiddleston masterfully balances the two.
Abraham was careful to keep the focus on Williams’ humanity, and not succumb to the hagiographic tendencies that too often derail celebrity biopics. Williams’ musical career is legendary — he recorded 35 singles that placed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers Chart, 11 of which ranked No. 1. His illustrious music career and widespread success speak for themselves. “I Saw the Light” focuses on the man behind the fame.
“I wanted to show that despite the fact that he was a genius and was able to translate his personal pain, adversarial relationships and the very difficult things that occurred in his life, he was a man,” Abraham said. “A person, a human being walking the planet, facing the same things that everyone else does.”
Abraham and Hiddleston both agreed on the necessity of telling Williams’ story with a human perspective.
“The reason his music had power and made a connection was because they were from a real place,” Hiddleston said. This film, he said, is focused on showing that real place.
What truly makes the film stand out, beyond its inspired cast, is Hiddleston’s nuanced and passionate interpretation of Williams.
“There’s an interesting tension between his external charisma and internal vulnerability,” Hiddleston said. “As a public figure, he was magnetic. As a performer, electrifying. But behind that, he was a very tortured soul.”
Hiddleston conveys the complex emotions of both extremes, and the film rides on the strength of his commitment to authenticity.
The film is not a blockbuster, but it portrays Williams’ life as it was: glamorous, tormented and above all, human. Hiddleston manifests the character’s internal vulnerability, and delivers a performance that will withstand the test of time.
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