Country music complete with charisma

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday March 29, 2016
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"I was a fool to wander and a-stray,/Straight is the gate and narrow the way./Now I have traded the wrong for the right,/Praise the Lord, I saw the light." �" lyrics by Hank Williams.

It's hard for anyone contemplating the life, the work and the untimely early death of the genius-level American singer-songwriter Hank Williams not to be moved to preach about his virtues and our mutual sins, about the glory, the folly and the inscrutable mystery of it all. The new film I Saw the Light (opening Friday at Bay Area theaters), which prompts these musings, is like most of humankind's endeavors, flawed. But it's also powerful, with a message of hope not easily found elsewhere.

The late Hank Williams (1934-53) was, by most accounts, a hard man to bear. He was a man of intemperate habits and quick to anger, but also a man like Woody Guthrie, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman, who had tapped into some higher wisdom, into a truth he was largely unable to access except in his music. Hank Williams' God-given talent was in some ways comparable to that bestowed on such other Southern creative souls as Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman) or Flannery O'Connor (Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard to Find ).

In I Saw the Light, writer/director Marc Abraham allows actor Tom Hiddleston to act and sing the role of Hank Williams. The actor is sublime, the singing up to the job. We watch as Hiddleston's Hank Williams goes through rocky marriages, starts to tap into his songwriting muse, gets called to Country Music Heaven, the Grand Ole Opry, and then, just as quickly as he rose, falls to earth, dying in the backseat of his Cadillac on the way to a concert. Dead at 29.

There are some wonderful touches along the way. Every other man, singer, and potential rival in the film wears what was once called "the Brylcreem look," a slicked-back hairstyle that is so post-WWII American Gothic that it makes you laugh, and later may cause you to weep. There are no obvious LGBTQ characters in I Saw the Light, and the only African American onscreen plays a hotel doorman. The world of Hank Williams was a very white world, except that deep below the surface ran a current of emotion, soulfulness and truthtelling that would inspire the likes of African American country/blues great Ray Charles.

As with other great bio-pics, say Milk, in which a hetero-identified actor (Sean Penn) had to fully embody the transformative figure of a prophetic gay martyr, British-born actor Hiddleston's embrace of the very American soul of Williams may point to or at least hint at a real change in our culture, a new national synthesis where neglected and maligned people are drawn into the American fabric, which itself may become a universal creed. Meanwhile enjoy this movie, which its creators wished to have you experience as if it were a single soul-stirring ballad. Listen as a man you may never have heard of learns to do the thing that is so difficult for so many men.

"Hear that lonesome whippoorwill,/He sounds too blue to fly./The midnight train is whining low,/I'm so lonesome I could cry.

"I've never seen a night so long/When time goes crawling by./The moon just went behind the clouds/To hide its face and cry.

"Did you ever see a robin weep/When leaves begin to die?/Like me, he's lost the will to live./I'm so lonesome I could cry."