Hank Williams: I Saw the Light

Starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams

Written and Directed by Marc Abraham

Release Date: March 25, 2016

A Picture from Life’s Other Side

By Luke the Drifter

Hank Williams - I Saw the LightWell, they did it to you again, Hank; they did it to you again. Hollywood got its clammy meat-hooks on your incandescent life story and snuffed it out without a second thought.

The Shakespeare of country music was the last to recognize his own genius. Your highest ambition was to play on the Grand Ol’ Opry, not to be taken as an artist on any terms whatsoever. Your mother Lillie Williams—portrayed as a jealous girlfriend by Cherry Jones—was the only one to recognize your innate gifts, saying in a key scene in this wrenching new portrait of the “founding father of country music” that while you “came from Alabama,” where you really “came from” is an utter mystery to her. She is not referring to your birthplace or hometown, but to your artistic genius—where that comes from. There is no explanation of that offered, as if none were possible. But after you have heard a half dozen of the greatest songs ever written—not country songs, Hank, or country-western songs, but songs of any kind—you begin to realize that there is a good reason all of the people around you—including your most intimate relationships—with your wife Audrey, your band mates The Drifting Cowboys and your alter ego—me—seem like well-grounded earthlings while you are a strange creature from another planet.

But we both know that isn’t true, don’t we Hank? The problem with this idealized, romanticized portrait is that it leaves out an essential fact of your early experience as a white musician in the most segregated county in the most segregated state in the south—Montgomery, Alabama; birthplace of the civil rights movement—where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus December 1, 1955, less than three years after you died on New Year’s Day, 1953. I’m proud to say that Hank Williams reached across the color line when you were growing up and were tutored in the blues by local black street blues guitarist Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne—representing his being a Teetotaler, or non-drinker. Wish he could have taught you that, Hank. Tee-Tot taught you to play guitar and to sing the blues, giving you the basic tools of the first country singer whose singing style would bear the earmarks of African-American southern music. No wonder your first hit song would be not one of your own making, but Cliff Friend and Irving Mills’ Lovesick Blues. Bocephus, your devoted and truth-telling son Hank Williams, Jr. paid tribute to T-Tot in his own song about his father, and how you were influenced by the blues.

And yet, when the Motion Picture Academy has been condemned (perhaps unfairly) as racist in overlooking performances by every African-American actor and actress in the recent all-white Academy Awards this nonetheless very entertaining film that conceals as much as it reveals about the greatest country singer-songwriter of all time utterly ignores this irreducible fact of your artistic training: Hank Williams did not come kicking and screaming into the world of music shaping gems of inexplicable beauty from Zeus’ forehead; he succeeded in melding two great musical traditions into one so that the whole—as Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed—was greater than the sum of its parts.

Without Tee-Tot—and the blues tradition he passed onto the young Hiram King “Hank” Williams—there would have been no “Hillbilly Shakespeare.” And without Hank Williams we never would have heard of “Tee-Tot.” That is the story one would have wanted to hear sixty-three years after your untimely death. Instead, once again, not one actor or actress of color managed to complicate this oft-told tale of your drinking, pill-popping and cheating ways, punctuated by magical moments of pure musical splendor.

Don’t get me wrong, Hank; these were magic moments and the movie does them justice, with a stellar performance by British actor Tom Hiddleston in the starring role. From his tender opening solo performance of Cold Cold Heart to the Lovesick Blues with the Drifting Cowboys to the title gospel track I Saw the Light to the hauntingly beautiful I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the final joyful Jambalaya over the closing credits (where we learn that the movie was shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, home of the Louisiana Hayride that gave you your start) one has no doubt that you are singing and playing, despite the fact that Hiddleston—under the brilliant musical direction of country star Rodney Crowell—does all of his own playing and singing. And even though the good-lookin’ woman sitting next to me assumed at times that she was listening to the real Hank Williams, there is no lip-synching in the entire film. It’s an astonishing performance, especially considering the fact that the actor is British, as evident in talk-show interviews.

What is so uncanny about his performance is not just the singing and playing, but his body language that recreates the physical sense of who Hank Williams was on stage. Your painfully skinny physique and Elvis-like physicality behind the microphone gave you something utterly new to country music—and American music in general—Hank Williams sang with his whole being; you weren’t just a voice and a guitar. You were a spectral presence the likes of which had never been seen before—and could only be compared with Elvis Presley since. You could feel the audience on the edge of their seats.

The film’s script was written by its director Marc Abraham, based on the book Hank Williams: A Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen. Maybe the biography told the story of your early life, but the movie restricts its coverage to your final eight years from 1944 to 1953 that covers only your recording career, from Lovesick Blues, your first hit, to the posthumously released Your Cheatin’ Heart. It’s enough to engage the average viewer, since Hiddleston pulls you into your desperate, doomed character with such conviction that you feel you have actually seen yourself in the mirror at both your high points of creative achievement and low point of personal degradation. I’m referring, Hank, to the unforgivable time you scared Audrey with a gun.

While leaving out the role of Tee-Tot, what this movie adds to previous portrayals (such as George Hamilton’s in the first major biopic) is the chronic pain induced by your lifelong battle with Spina Bifada Occulta—a birth defect in which the vertebrae in your spinal column did not close properly. You lived in agonizing pain your entire life—which you with only limited success self-medicated with alcohol, pills, and sex.

Elizabeth Olsen, who stars as your wife and muse Audrey Mae Williams fully stands up to Hiddleston’s Williams in every scene they are in—even though she is given the thankless task of portraying an ambitious but talent-challenged companion who is told by everyone around her she does not have what it takes to be a country music singer. That she is married to the greatest country singer of all time seems to have escaped her attention. The one talent she has is the ability to break your heart at every turn. Either of you could have sung Your Cheatin’ Heart with total conviction—based on the true story of your lives. But only Hank could have written it—and that she is unwilling to accept.

They ostensibly left me out of the story too; reducing me to a crazy scene where you seem to go mad at the start of a show—rambling on in a drunken stupor. We both know that isn’t true either, don’t we Hank? Or have you forgotten? I wrote your best song—the one that is so sad and true MGM refused to release it under your name—afraid you would lose your audience altogether. You wrote a song too sad for country music—A Picture from Life’s Other Side—so they only let you release it under my name—Luke the Drifter.

The movie has many small touches which make it compelling to watch from beginning to end—and for that credit cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who succeeds in giving it the look of an extended almost black-and-white documentary interspersed with home movies of you and Audrey in muted earth tones—through a glass darkly, as Bergman might have said. The film is framed by an interview with your music publisher Fred Rose—portrayed with the ring of truth by Bradley Whitford. The darkness of your personal failures—in love, with the divorce from Audrey, and in the loss of the great ambition of your life when you are fired from the Grand Ol’ Opry (and blame me) for appearing drunk on stage—is underscored by Spinotti’s dark-hued nuanced impressionism.

And yet, out of the ill-fated love of your life you wove the alchemy of gold record after gold record (36 hit songs in all). By the time you leave for your New Year’s Day booking in Canton, Ohio on December 30, 1952, in the powder-blue Cadillac that is to be your death bed, we know you will never get there. The heart-breaking finale has been foreshadowed a number of times throughout the film, with you lying in the back seat of your car, your head pillowed in Audrey’s lap. For the final ride the movie cuts away from the actual drive and takes you to the concert you never make it to—and the announcer’s painful duty to inform the packed house of your fans that Hank Williams is dead.

I had been waiting to hear I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry for a half hour—and as the film fades to black you finally hear that lonesome whippoorwill—that sounds too blue to cry.

It’s pure perfection—like watching Hank Williams’ coffin close forever—to be replaced by the immortality of country music superstardom that ever since has redefined the art form into a transcendent form of American poetry—and a picture from life’s other side.

You were only 29 years old, Hank—and forever young.

Your friend,

Luke the Drifter

“Luke the Drifter” is a pseudonym for a Los Angeles folk singer who has a PhD in Modern Literature; he may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com