By Bruce Sylvester
Hank Williams, dubbed the hillbilly Shakespeare, was pronounced dead at age 29 on New Year’s Day 1953, in Oak Hill, WV. In his short lifetime, he penned and sang such classics as gospel “I Saw The Light,” jovial “Hey Good Lookin’,” comic “Kaw-Liga” and heartbroken “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” while alcoholism, a mutually abusive first marriage and congenital back problems due to spina bifida wracked his body and soul.
Director/screenwriter Marc Abraham’s new biopic “I Saw The Light” (Columbia Pictures) portrays him honestly. Tom Hiddleston stars as Hank. Elizabeth Olsen plays his ambitious but musically talentless first wife, Audrey. They couldn’t live together, but they couldn’t stay apart either. Their marriage was hardly the worst in country music history, but it’s the most infamous. His songs are the bitter fruits of her cruelties.
The film begins in a gas station on the night of December 15, 1944, as the proprietor, moonlighting as a justice of the peace, marries Hiram King Williams to divorcee Audrey Mae Sheppard Guy. Said Abraham, “When I decided to make a film about Hank’s life, I was intent on telling the story through the window of his relationships with powerful women (mother, Lily, and wives, Audrey and Billie Jean Jones), his physical pain and his most human flaws; to show the passion and always-chaotic emotional life behind the curtain. I feel it’s only by exposing his inner turmoil that you can truly understand what drove his lyrics, music and explosive performances.
“The truth is, Hank Williams’ downfalls were his inspirations. ‘Cold Cold Heart’ isn’t a song written on a scrap of paper by a man looking for a hit. It’s a song lived by a man whose wife had an abortion without telling him and then blamed him for it. One of Hank’s last recordings was ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ This was shortly after his second divorce from Audrey was final. It’s a brilliant example of how Williams used his personal experience to relate to every man and woman.
“In my own way, I wanted to make a film that felt like a song. I studied just about every movie ever made about musicians. The ones that resonated emotionally and cinematically stayed away from psychological examination. I had no interest in trying to analyze Hank Williams through his drinking or his childhood. To me that would be like trying to explain how Bob Zimmerman (came) from Hibbing MN, whose father ran a furniture store, became Bob Dylan. ‘I Saw The Light’ tells Williams’ story as truthfully and accurately as possible. It doesn’t manipulate events or make up scenes to illustrate his talent. It delves into the people, the actual places, and the simple everyday moments that made him who he was.”
So how did Hiddleston, an Englishman with little background in country music, prepare for his role? Country singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell coached him to the point where Hiddleston (backed by the Saddle Spring Boys: Crowell, Richard Bennett, Stuart Duncan, and Mickey Raphael) capture the sound of post-war honky-tonk music as blues-inflected Hank (and artists like Little Jimmy Dickens and The Maddox Brothers And Rose) edged country music toward the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
According to Hiddleston, “The way folk music is handed down to children in the U.K. when I was growing up has a very Celtic inheritance, and rhythmically it’s much more on the beat. There’s no sense of dropping off the beat or singing behind the beat. It’s not blues. I had to really just dig into the blues and swim around it a bit. I had to loosen up my natural rhythm. It sounds technical, but in the end you just have to feel it out instinctively.
“It was pure practice, practice, practice. Hank’s tone is not an easy one to emulate. I had to refine my yodel and inflect my vowel sounds. Rodney was sweet about it, but he wasn’t going to let anything past him. He’d say, ‘Tommy boy, I can hear your English choirboy comin’ out now. You been singin’ too many hymns at those English schools. You’re right on top of the beat. You gotta hang back off it. Just glide behind it.’ It was an education in the blues. Sometimes we’d just sing the blues all day.”
Hiddleston’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. Observe Hank’s eyes in the few performance videos we’ve got of him. Hiddleston, who acts with his eyes, has mastered the look. Watch his expression change when, as Hank (ever the devoted dad), he gradually realizes that Audrey has had an abortion.
As for co-star Elizabeth Olsen, director Abraham remarked, “Even though her character of Audrey wasn’t really much of a vocalist, Elizabeth’s actually quite a good singer. She had to work hard to not sound great.” (Gluttons for punishment can experience the real Audrey singing on four of the 1949 “Health And Happiness Show” radio transcriptions found on Time Life’s 3-CD “Hank Williams: The Legend Begins: Rare And Unreleased Recordings.”)
Along with his honky-tonk music, Hank liked to do maudlin nonmusical narrations, which his record company, MGM, released under the pseudonym Luke The Drifter. MGM feared that putting them out under his own name would risk their winding up on a jukebox, where people would punch them up, expecting to hear country hits, and then dislike what they wound up hearing and hold it against Hank. In the film, we see Hank go on stage before an audience that of course wants his hits, but instead he drunkenly delivers an utterly raw narration as gripping as anything you’ll find on a Luke The Drifter platter. Hiddleston’s performance here is so riveting that it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
The film downplays a few issues. In her revealing book “Still In Love With You: The Story of Hank And Audrey Williams,” Audrey’s daughter Lycrecia (who goes by the name Lycrecia Williams, though her step-father Hank – in effect, the only father she ever knew – never adopted her) says that Lily and Hank’s sister would gang up on Audrey in physical fights, though in the movie the competing wife and mother’s less-than-cordial relationship never approaches that point. Later in the film when Hank – who’s by then once again in the process of divorce from Audrey – takes one look at teenaged Billie Jean Jones Eshliman (who’s played well by Maddie Hasson), we don’t see him pull a gun on her date, future country star Faron Young, to get her for his own date (an event Billie Jean confirmed in a Feb. 7, 2003, “Goldmine” interview with this writer).
Also downplayed is the tragic legend of his death in the back seat of his powder-blue Cadillac en route to a concert in Canton, OH. The film is heavily based on Colin Escott’s authoritative biography “Hank Williams” (written with George Merritt and William MacEwen), which points out that actually Hank may have died in a Knoxville, TN hotel room the night before. When his crew carried him from the hotel to his Cadillac to resume the trip to Ohio, they assumed he was sleeping, though his soul might have already left his pain-wracked body behind. Stopping briefly on a West Virginia highway early the next morning, the teenaged chauffeur realized his back-seat passenger was dead. The movie simply shows Hank bidding Billie Jean farewell in Montgomery, AL, and then shows a stunned MC announcing to an anxiously awaiting Canton audience that he’s died. Still, the presentation of his death here in “I Saw The Light” is far more worthy than it is in the laughably fictionalized 1964 biopic “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” which has Audrey (who wasn’t even his wife then) waiting for him backstage in Canton.
“I Saw The Light” ends with its only authentic vintage footage: a crowd exiting his funeral in Montgomery. The color footage came from the grandson of the cop who shot it.
Likely as not, the more familiar audiences already are with Hank’s life (not just his music), the more they’ll appreciate the understatements and nuances in “I Saw The Light.” Reading Escott’s bio or, using less time, watching the five-part documentary “The Hank Williams Story” on YouTube will help a lot. For example, in the film, when a concerned Hank asks Audrey how long it has been since little Lycrecia’s seen her father, Audrey avoids answering the question directly. Lycrecia has written that she’d never even met her real father. Later in the movie, catch the tone in Olsen’s voice when, as Audrey, she says the words “the child,” referring to baby Hank Williams Jr.
The film’s 13-cut soundtrack (on Legacy) includes Hiddleston and The Saddle Spring Boys ably covering six of Hank’s records (all but one from his pen) plus six tracks by his contemporaries such as Jo Stafford and fellow Alabama boys The Delmore Brothers. For a special final touch, the CD closes with black-face Vaudevillian Emmett Miller’s 1925 “Lovesick Blues.” The song launched Hank’s career in 1949, though the two renditions’ verse/chorus structures are mighty different. The movie presents a few songs in years before they were actually recorded, though Eartha Kitt’s comically materialistic “Santa Baby” (which wasn’t released until after Hank’s death) well fits the dysfunctional Christmas party we see at his and Audrey’s home. For some reason, Hank’s classic gospel song that provides the film’s name isn’t on the CD, though we see people sing it at his funeral.
Actually, “I Saw The Light” isn’t the only recent film to pay reverence to Hank. If you give close attention to director Todd Haynes’ 1952 Christmas season tale “Carol” (starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), you’ll occasionally see a Hank devotee’s subtle fingerprint that is not in Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price Of Salt” on which “Carol” is based.
Williams’ own recordings aren’t used in “I Saw The Light,” but they’re available on everything from single best-of CDs to exhaustive, almost-complete 10-CD box “The Complete Hank Williams” (Mercury). Then there are the pre-taped radio programs he did for Mother’s Best flour in his last year. Originally recorded on acetates (which captured his spirit far better than the magnetic tape of his day), 15-CD box “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!“ (Time Life) shows how vibrant he was in the studio no matter how bad his physical or emotional shape. His musical legacy is well preserved for casual fans as well as for Hankoholics like myself. “I Saw The Light” is a strong addition to his canon.