Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
I wandered so aimless life filed with sin
I wouldn’t let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light.
Just as jazz fans of Chet Baker are being treated to Robert Budreau’s Born to Be Blue, so country music lovers now have a film tribute to the iconic Hank Williams. Writer/director Marc Abraham, who based his screenplay on Colin Escott’s 1994 book Hank Williams: The Biography, follows the more traditional arc of the musical biography. Thus some critics have found this less satisfying than Budreau’s film. But just as Ethan Hawke’s work was highly praised in the first film, so has actor Thomas Hiddleston been the object of much admiration for his portrayal of the troubled singer/composer who died far too young. You might say, “What! A Brit playing an Alabama boy!?” Rest assured, the actor not only nails the Southern accent, but even performs the songs. His performance rings true to Hank’s original renderings.
The film begins in 1944 when the 21-year-old Hank marries Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) at an Alabama Texaco station, the owner of which was a justice of the peace. When Williams and his wife sing with their group over the radio, the station people say that they are displeased with the less talented Audrey’s singing. Thus early on relations between the two become strained. We also see that Hank’s mother Lillie (Cherry Jones*) was not overly happy about Audrey and her son marrying. The film focuses as much on Hank and Audrey’s turbulent relationship as it does on the music, though we get to hear renderings of such great songs as “Move It On Over,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Your Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me.”
On his way to achieving his dream of performing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry there are many bumps in the road—and afterwards as well. Along with his drinking there is his back trouble due to spina bifida. He becomes addicted to amphetamines, morphine, and other painkillers, as well as the bottle. On the road he climbs into bed with virtually any willing woman, of which there are always many hanging around the stage and nearby bars, resulting in his on again off again relationship with Audrey. In the background is his mother ready to offer support, taking him in after his divorce in 1952. There is a brief stop over in Hollywood where MGM producer Dore Schary (Josh Pais) seems none too sure about Williams being able to stay sober to meet contract obligations. During the last year of his life he began a brief relationship with Bobbie Jett (Wrenn Schmidt), but then married Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson)
Placed throughout the film are black and white shots of Williams’ manager Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford) commenting on Williams and their relationship, giving the film a documentary flavor. The singer sometimes had to cancel an engagement because of his bouts with alcohol and drugs. Judging him to be too unreliable, the management of Grand Ole Opry dropped him. We see in one instance that when he did show up (late) he was unable to perform. His demise due to drug and pill misuse late in the night of New Year’s Day 1953 in the back of his car while being driven to an engagement in Ohio was a pathetic end to a brilliant career.
The life of Hank Williams could be seen as a cautionary tale, perhaps even a midrash of Romans 6:23. This boy who first sang in a church choir grew up to be an adult subject to the temptations of the road musician. His signature song giving the film its name reflects his early upbringing in the evangelical church. Hank Williams did indeed see the light, but was unable to stay in it. We can only hope that at some moment during those last few hours of his life he saw the light again. We do know that despite his condition he was working on new song lyrics because his notes were found and then fought over by his heirs.
Whatever the condition of his soul at the end, this film, cautionary though it might be, also celebrates a man of great talent who has left us a treasure trove of beautiful songs. 33 of them were hit singles, 8 of them reaching the No. 1 spot on the charts, and 3 more achieving this after his death. Williams is often given the credit of moving what in the 40s was called “Hill Billy music” from the fringe of the music industry into its mainstream. (I can remember my father, who serviced juke and wall boxes, using this dismissive term.) Hank Williams might not always have lived his life well, but he certainly left the world richer with his music.
*See my blog about Cherry Jones, my favorite cameo film actress.