Hank Williams in the Distance


Still from “I Saw the Light.” / Columbia Pictures.

The first time I heard Hank Williams sing was around 1970 when he crooned out of the jukebox at the Coastside Coral in Pacifica, CA. My mom and dad sat at the bar drinking beer, and Hank came on over the tinny speakers singing about being a Ramblin’ Man and how he was so lonesome he could cry. I got it right away. Eight years old or not, I understood what the man was singing about and liked when Hank’s songs came on. I could sing along with him and feel the words. I was just a squirt, chewing on a rope of gum that my grandma said looked like a cow chewing its cud, but to me Hank Williams was singing about things totally real to me. He was the first country music singer I ever heard, and the one I always remembered.

I bought a Hank Williams CD about 20 years ago, and I still play the hell out of it. Mostly I listen to it while driving out in the desert on the “Lost Highway.” To me those empty desert roads always feel like the arteries of my heart just like the highways that paved the roads of Hank Williams’ soul. And soul is the right word for Hank’s songs because the man played the blues, songs of loneliness, despair, love, and longing modeled after the three-chord blues progressions that are at the very heart of American roots music.

My CD includes hit favorites like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as well as eerie testimonies from the dark side of the soul recited by Hank Williams’ alter ego Luke the Drifter. I didn’t know the voice on those tracks was Luke the Drifter sermonizing through my car stereo until a few nights ago when I watched the new biopic I Saw The Light about Hank Williams. In fact, I didn’t know much about Hank when I walked into the movie theater earlier this week, even though I knew the lyrics and sang along in my head or whispered the words to every song performed in the movie as I watched it. Hank Williams paved the way for country music. His songs are so iconic that they have been revived over and over and kept alive not just in the jukebox when I was a kid or playing through the speakers in my car, but also through the voices of so many people whose covers of Hank Williams songs resonate in my music memory, including musicians like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and Nick Cave.

Couple the fact that Hank Williams songs have always been part of my own musical vernacular with the fact that I’m a poet who started playing guitar a couple of years ago, and I was keenly interested in watching this movie about the man called the Hillbilly Shakespeare and who I knew so little about even while I know so many of his songs. I’m not a big fan of biopics in general. They tend to be overinflated melodramas that follow the same formula to tell the stories of tragic legends lost early to booze, drugs and/or violence. I can’t say that I Saw The Light doesn’t contain those elements. It most certainly does. Hank Williams was a drug addict, an alcoholic, and a womanizer with a disability, a bad marriage, a domineering mother, and an absentee father. Of course all of these elements contributed to his early date with the grave. Interestingly, I didn’t even know he died young until I watched this movie. But now I know that Hank Williams’ musical success spanned a mere six years before he died at the age of 29.

To me, Hank Williams always looked and sounded old. Maybe that’s because he sings about such timeless themes, things that anyone can relate to. People, for the most part, hate being lonely and abandoned, often struggle with the dark side of their soul, and most assuredly dislike having their hearts broken. Hank Williams poured these human realities into his songs, and in the film Tom Hiddleston channels Williams’ legacy into yet another incarnation of the country legend.

But the movie is more than just the story of the Hillbilly Shakespeare. It is also a vehicle for exploring the whole idea of the music legend and the tension between the myth of celebrity and the little known reality of the lives actually lived behind the veneer of mass popularity. The film reinvents Hank Williams in yet another form of media – a movie – and gives us a snapshot of the man’s life, but it also leaves us with empty hands as the actual man slips through our fingers. The movie tells the story of Hank Williams, but it also limits our access just like access to celebrity is limited. No one will really know what it was like to be Hank Williams (or any other celebrity for that matter) or who Hank Williams really was except Hank himself, and he’s dead. We know his music. We know the stories, if we read them. We know what people say. But we will never really know him.

One of the complaints critics have of this film is that it doesn’t allow us to know Hank Williams. But the whole idea that a movie would be a vehicle for the audience to know a real person is absurd. Those are ridiculous expectations. Movies are already removed from reality by the medium, and to think that they could capture a human life, especially one that is largely unknown and distorted through the lens of celebrity, is to put impossible expectations on film. Let’s look at movies, including this one, for what they are: artificial constructs, just like the celebrities biopics depict largely are.

The film self-consciously limits our access to Hank so we can experience him as if we are in “real time” with the icon delivered through mass media, but it also gives us emotional access through Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Williams. Let me be clear. We never once feel like we are watching Hank Williams. We feel we are watching an actor interpret Hank Williams, and that is not necessarily a liability. It is more true than pretending that the person we are watching is anything other than an actor interpreting a person, which is all anyone is able to do in a film. During the musical performances and emotional peaks in the movie, our emotional excitement is inspired by the performance we are watching by a performer. Hiddleston’s interpretation of Hank is brilliant. He channels the nuances of Hank’s speech, body language, and character (as evidenced in the historical record), but he also inscribes the character with his own spirit. It is always very clearly a performance, but it is a true deep soul searching sincere performance. If we can allow ourselves to enjoy his performance in its own right, a performance that uses Hank Williams’ legacy as its source but then also gives us something new, then we are in for a treat. But no, Tom Hiddleston nor anyone else will ever actually “be” Hank Williams.

The film limits its timeline to the period when Hank Williams was actually being heard on radios and in concerts during his lifetime. This condensed timeframe makes the film much more effective because it denies access to information extraneous to the moment of Williams’ stardom and his death. The movie starts during the time Hank had his first successful radio show and ends with his death on the way to play a concert on New Year’s Day. We are given no backstory and no flashbacks to his earlier life, except for the presence of his mother Lillie Williams (played by Cherry Jones with quiet power in a surprisingly effective performance) and a few scenes when Hank speculates on his missing father. But we are never given any real solid information about his childhood. Likewise, the film ends right when Hank dies. It does not pursue the future exploits of the Williams family (the subsequent generations of Hanks), what happened to his estate, his wives, his children, etc. It very tightly bookends the story within the timeframe that Hank Williams was a country pop star, and by doing that it places the audience in the position of experiencing this Hank Williams as if we are the random listener turning the knob on the radio and landing on one of Hank’s songs for the first time, letting it work on us from a raw place and through the distance of the medium of delivery (radio or film).

After seeing the movie, I was inspired to learn more about the backstory of Hank. I discovered various information and speculations including: 1) His mother Lillie was a domineering force who ran a brothel and set Hank up to play guitar on the sidewalk in front of the radio station which would give him his start; 2) Hank learned how to play guitar from an old black Alabama street blues musician (Rufus Payne); 3) Hank’s father worked in a wood mill and/or grew strawberries but Lillie put him away in a veterans hospital when Hank was six. I thought about what would happen if any of these “scenes” from Hank’s life were introduced in the movie, perhaps as the starting point, and I realized that if that happened, it would upset the film’s effectiveness. We wouldn’t experience the film from the outsider ground of the listener or watcher. In the film, we discover Hank Williams after he became Hank Williams, and we leave him when he’s dead and gone. That time limit breaks the film from the traditional biopic trappings, but it also leaves the audience a little perplexed because they want “more.” But “more” is clearly one of the things that killed Hank and other celebrities who die early. The public and the industry push celebrities them for more and more and more, until they drop dead. The film resists giving us more, and because of that it lets Hank be Hank by refusing to give us Hank.

The only flashbacks we are given in the film are from industry insiders through black and white footage simulating newsreel type interviews. Grand Ol Opry’s corporate leaders Fred Rose and Roy Aycuff reflect on Hank’s life, but let’s not forget that these men are representatives of the industry that created the idol. We are given these glimpses through fictional creations of an industry that creates fictional creations to propel them to stardom and make a lot of money for the “brand” (as the Opry is referred to in the film). There is so much nostalgia and sincerity attached to the Grand Ol Opry, but ultimately it was an enterprise, and its interest was in record sales and profits. Sure Fred Rose was close to Hank, but if you go by what the film says, he was closer to his “brand.” So we can’t be fooled by these reflections to think that we are getting a glimpse at the real man. We are just getting another layer of artifice delivered through the voice of industry.

This is not to say that there isn’t sincerity in the film, but that sincerity largely comes from Hiddleston’s sincere immersion into the legend of Hank Williams. Hiddleston channels Williams not just through acting, but by actually playing guitar and singing his own versions of Hank Williams songs. The performances are powerful because they are so obviously performances while also still clearly being an utter outpouring of soul. There is one thing that annoys me even more than a formulaic biopic, and that’s lip syncing in a formulaic biopic. Sometimes, a biopic will rise beyond the limits of its own genre when the actor playing the lead role becomes an extension of the artist through his or her own talents and ability to render the musician’s songs. This is the case in Sam Riley’s performance as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), and it is also the case with Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light.

Certainly many of today’s reactionary fans of slick commercial-coated pop country are angry that a Brit is playing a legend of American Country Music, but Hiddleston knocks the performance out of the park. Not only does he do an incredibly nuanced job of capturing the tiniest of Hank Williams’ expressions (wide eyes staring out into a vast an alienating world, deep introspection, cocky egoism, smirky drunkeness, lost soul searching, and cringing chronic pain), but he also reinterprets Williams’ music through Hiddleston’s own voice and guitar playing. It’s hard for folks to remember, but country music was originally called Hillbilly Music and was considered to be “white man’s blues.” Williams poured his very soul into his songs whose primary influences were roots music and gospel, and Hiddleston pours his whole soul into Williams’ songs.

Despite the brouhaha about a Brit playing an American country music legend, Tom Hiddleston nails Hank’s persona while also infusing unique life into it. He captures the nuances of Williams’ voice but also fills it with his own spirit and vision of Williams, and this is what makes the film captivating. We are always very aware that we are watching Tom Hiddleston play Hank Williams and are always reminded, therefore, that this is a film and not reality. The self-awareness that we are watching a fictional recreation of a legend plays against the absolute authenticity and soul of Hiddleston’s performance. This creates a tension in the audience between feeling the music while also feeling removed from the icon they came to see.

The audience is at odds with the movie just like Hank Williams was at odds with being both a real man (who we will never really know) and a myth. Hiddleston’s performance seethes with physicality, rippling with fragility and charisma. It is a subtle performance with tiny nuances that show Hank’s character through the rhythm of body language as well as the strumming of his guitar. Hiddleston says of what he learned while learning to play Hank Williams’ songs: “When you’re playing the blues, it’s just three chords and the truth.” Hiddleston pours a hell of a lot of truth into his performance.

In one scene, Hank tells a reporter: “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I’m talking about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to them. They hear it, and they don’t have to take it home . . . Country music, it’s sincere. Man sings a sad song, he knows sad.” These are universals that Hiddleston’s Hank talks about in the movie and that “real” Hank sang about and wrote about in his songs. They broke with traditions of masculinity and dug deep into the flawed and fractured human soul. They are universal human feelings, and they aren’t owned by a specific geography. You don’t need to come from south of the Mason-Dixon Line to know the pain of heartbreak or loneliness. For people (including the delusional Hank3) to think Hank Williams’ authenticity is limited to the American South is pure ignorance.

The movie opens with Hank/Hiddleston singing an acapella version of “Cold, Cold Heart.” He sits alone on a stool in a dark vast auditorium. His head is bowed and obscured by his hat. The screen glows with a stage spotlight, but Williams face is cast in shadow. We can’t see him, but we can feel him. His music reaches us, yet the darkness and shadows keep him at a distance.

This distance is sustained throughout the film by the cinematography of Dante Spinotti. The entire film is shot as if through a haze or if we are looking through glass, on step removed from the actual characters. Many of the scenes are soaked with darkness. Hank is beaming when he is on stage performing, but he looks like a shocked animal. When he is off stage, he is frequently hunched over, leaning inside himself, hidden under the wide brim of his hat or the haze and daze of opiates and alcohol. The cinematography feels like a dream which increases the sense that we are watching a myth and not a man.

The distancing of the camerawork plays against the richly textured scenery. The film was shot on location in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the outdoor scenery is lusciously real. During the scenes when Hiddleston performs at the The Louisiana Hayride, he is standing on the very same stage that Hank Williams stood on when he got his start on the way to the Opry. So again, the movie delivers both a sense of accuracy (shot on location where Hank Williams actually lived and performed), but also shot through a hazy lens that distances the scenes with a dreamlike fuzz.

The key ingredient in this film, besides the acting, is tension. It is a tense movie that seems to fail to deliver in almost every scene, except for the moments when Hank/Hiddleston is performing. The disconnect and tension are so consistent that they must be intentional. Communications are awkward and contentious, especially between Hank and his wife Audrey, played with absolute mastery by Elizabeth Olson. The Hank and Audrey we see in this movie are two people whose egos and need for attention came first and masked themselves in the guise of love. In one scene, they both ask each other if the other one loves him/her, and both refuse to deliver. “Do you love me?” is answered with “Do you love me?” Audrey apparently was greedy for fame but sang terribly, yet she was instrumental in propelling Hank Williams to fame while resenting every minute of the attention he got.

Olson’s performance shows a cold, resentful woman with such subtlety that looking into her eyes made me shudder. In one scene, she actually competes with Hank over singing to their newborn baby because she realizes with the baby she finally has an audience. She holds the baby, and both Hank and Audrey look in opposite directions into the dark margins of the screen. The chemistry between them is volatile and tense. In another scene after Hank makes it big, the camera closes in on a fur coat that looks like a rotten dead animal. The shot of this pelt is like the rot of fame and greed that Audrey wears and Hank delivers.

As I said, I didn’t know much about Hank Williams going into the movie, so I didn’t quite understand why Hank always needed to get fucked lying down or why he was so stood so awkwardly hunched while strumming his guitar. He always looks like he’s cringing even when he’s smiling and singing. We do learn that he suffered from Spina Bifida though he wasn’t diagnosed until near the end of his life. With this knowledge, I realize what an amazing job Hiddleston does of capturing a man who is living his life in nearly unbearable chronic physical pain but without making it melodramatic. The pain comes through in little things like how he has to lean onto a chair before climbing into it, and little details speak more powerfully bombastic melodramatic scenes.

The movie has plenty of melodramatic elements, but again it subverts them. A botch job abortion scene is muffled to the extent that it is nearly unintelligible. A quack doctor who gives Williams bad drugs enters in silhouette and obscurity like so many other characters and scenes in the movie. This is because celebrities will always be silhouetted by their fame regardless of the details of their life. Even Hank’s death comes quietly. He drives off, and his death is announced by an unknown third party. The information is delivered to us along with the audience waiting for Hank to perform. Someone from the entertainment business gives us the news, again couching Hank’s life and death inside the obscuring walls of the entertainment industry.

The movie ends with Hank’s death, and we are told through a postscript that he died at age 29 after six years in the business and over 36 top hits. That’s it. The first thing that hit me is that I had no idea Hank Williams died so young. One of the final scenes includes an audience singing the Williams’ song “I Saw the Light” after they learn of his death. They may have seen the light, but it must have just been the spotlights on the stage because Hank Williams himself was never really seen which is why he kept singing about that long lonesome road. His songs were pictures of his soul, full of longing, desire, and loneliness. They were unabashedly honest and emotional. Yet he became a casualty to his own accessibility. He sang of things everyone knew and understood, yet no one understood him. We still don’t, and this movie doesn’t pretend to understand him. That would be a lie. We have Hank Williams’ music and what it means to us and the many musicians and performers who have interpreted it, but we will never have the real man. We will only have interpretations of him, and this movie gives us a really interesting and thoughtful one.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Starswhich will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.