First Look at a New Hank Williams Biopic: I Saw the Light

Hank Williams is an endlessly fascinating character for fans of country/gospel music. As self-destructive as he was talented, he died at the age of 29–the Mozart of country music. Sixty years on, his body of work still stands the test of time. Bill Gaither’s son Benji co-produced a moving, loosely fictionalized account of his final days called The Last Ride, and now there’s a new film on the horizon that promises to be more of a proper biopic, called I Saw the Light. An unflinching look at the singer’s sad legacy, it will probably draw comparisons to the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Williams was a notorious philanderer, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the MPAA has slapped an “R” on it, although by the description it appears to be primarily for language.

Some controversy has surrounded the film’s casting of British actor Tom Hiddleston as Williams. I have mixed feelings about the choice. On the one hand, he’s a dead ringer for the country legend as far as looks go. On the other hand, he’s, well, British. Not even American, let alone Southern. So, among others, Williams’s own grandson has complained that the choice lacks authenticity, pointing to somebody like Matthew McConaughey as a better choice. I can see why he would feel that way, but then again, British actors have been playing American roles for quite some time now. Even iconic comic book characters like Superman and Batman have been taken over by Brits putting on a fake accent.

While I think Hiddleston is a superb actor, his American accent has been spotty in the past. And here, he not only has to speak the accent convincingly, but he has to sing Hank’s classic hit songs convincingly. But I give him credit for doing all of his own recordings, and I like the rough, unfiltered feel of the clips I’ve heard. It’s nice to be reminded of a time when country singing wasn’t as polished as pop music, a time when country songs had grit and depth of feeling to them. If they did this right, it could be a compelling piece of work. Ironic that it’s titled after Williams’s most gospel song, yet it is by no means clear that he ever saw that light for himself.

“Everybody has a little darkness in ’em. I’m talkin’ about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to them. And they hear it, and they don’t have to take it home.”

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