By Bob Doerschuk
Judging from what some critics said, one might have a better time stuck in an elevator than in a theater watching I Saw The Light, available now on Blu-ray/digital on demand. Various reviews describe the Hank Williams biopic as “a two-hour shrug” (Kyle Smith, New York Post), “incoherent” (Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post) and “dreary” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone).
In this context, Kenneth Turan’s description of the picture as “serviceable” in the Los Angeles Times qualifies as a rave.
Yet all who have waxed grandiloquent on I Saw The Light, haters and likers alike, appear to agree on one thing: the excellence of Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the country music icon. O’Sullivan pauses between sneers to concede the actor’s insight in “evoking Williams’ sly charm” and Travers acknowledges him as “a virtuoso who gives the role his considerable all.”
In other words, I Saw The Light is at worst like being trapped in an elevator with a really interesting stranger who almost makes the experience worthwhile. For guitarists, though, Hiddleston makes it even better than that. His slightly hunched posture, his strumming technique, the downward angle at which he tilts his instrument’s neck, undeniably and uncannily capture the iconography of Williams. The same applies to his accent, his facial expressions and more subtly to his underplayed but revealing insights into the Williams character on his journey toward pop culture immortality.
For directer, writer, and producer Marc Abraham, this was Priority Number One. A lifelong country music lover, the director of Dawn Of The Dead, Children Of Men and other successful films resolved that he would shoot I Saw The Light with respect for both Williams and the genre he so decisively influenced.
“A lot of people think country music is Hee Haw,” Abraham observes. “Growing up in Louisville, I knew how sophisticated it really is. This isn’t a bunch of people with cow dung on their boots. The music is very much of the heartland but the people there are smart. It was very important for me to make a movie about Hank Williams not just as an artist but as a young man. To me, a lot of this movie is about the pressures that come from show business.”
To make sure he stayed true to his mission, Abraham took his first steps toward I Saw The Light by contacting Jett Williams, Hank’s daughter and a longtime acquaintance of Abraham’s.
“I went out to see Jett and her husband Keith (Adkinson) at their beautiful farm in northeastern Tennessee,” he recalls. “We had a long conversation and they shared their opinions about what would be very important in this project. But they were very open to my doing it. She talked to me about who Hank was beyond what you read. One of the things I came away with was that Hank was cool. The best picture I have of Hank is one that Jett sent me of him in front of the Alamo. He’s wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses …
“… and khakis and a white shirt,” Williams adds as Abraham laughs. “I told Marc, ‘You’ve got to show this picture to Tom (Hiddleston). He wasn’t always in that cowboy hat. He wasn’t always on the stage. But when he was off, he still had greatness about him.”
It may have seemed risky to choose an English actor for the lead role. Yet Hiddleston came through in a way that stunned even Jett. “Most people know that I’ve always got a word to say,” she says. “But when I first saw Tom in person as my dad, nothing came out. I was awestruck. He looked so much like him. He had the mannerisms. And he spent spent hours with just the Alabama accent. . .”
“The Alabama accent of the 1950s,” Abraham inserts.
“That’s right,” Jett says. “People actually did say ‘winder’ for ‘window.’ But Tom had an honest-to-God love for doing Hank Williams. So he put a lot into it not only mentally and spiritually and musically but also physically, to get the vocal phrasing the the strumming and the rhythm just right.”
According to Abraham, Hiddleston wasn’t an accomplished guitarist when he came to I Saw The Light. “But he got a lot better from working with Rodney.”
Specifically, Rodney Crowell. If you want to connect with the spirit of Hank Williams, there is no better medium. In fact, he even saw Williams play live, on the shoulders of his father. “To be honest, I don’t remember much about that,” the Grammy-winning artist admits. “The memory is really my father’s; he would always tell me, ‘I took you to see Hank Williams.’ But I did hear to a lot of my parents’ 78 rpm records of Hank. That was the first music I listened to when I was growing up.”
“As you know, Rodney is a great musician, singer and songwriter,” says Abraham. “And he is dedicated to Hank’s music. Tom was eager to do the movie but suddenly he was scared. I kept saying, ‘You can do it!’ And he said, ‘Well, can you get someone who knows more than you do to say I can do it?’”
Enter Crowell. He first got together with Hiddleston and Abraham in a Toronto hotel room for a conversation about music that lasted for somewhere between eight and nine hours. At the end, Hiddleston again asked, “Do you think I can do it?” Crowell replied, “Well, can you yodel?” Everyone laughed, relaxed a bit … and then the work began.
“One thing I can say about Tom is that his work ethic is pretty Herculean,” Crowell attests. “He actually spent five weeks at my house. He went into Nashville one night on business. Another time we went to the Americana Awards. And he hung out with my wife at a couple of clubs. The rest of the time, he was at my house, working on that role. We looked at lots of YouTube videos on Hank. We’d work on music seven or eight hours every day in my home studio and then Tom would disappear upstairs to look at footage and listen to interview with Hank well into the night.
“One of the first things I figured out was that Tom could indeed sing and sing in tune. “So that was a leg up. I started him out on ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues,’ which is probably the hardest thing to yodel in Hank’s repertoire. When he got pretty close to it, I said, ‘OK, you’re gonna be alright.’ But he and I both knew the mark we had to hit was ‘Lovesick Blues.’ I remember very clearly the first time he nailed it. He was like a computer: He hit ‘Save’ on that and put it together from there. That gave me a little insight into the technique of being an actor.”
Hiddleston was just as dedicated to playing the guitar exactly as Williams did. To help make that happen, Crowell charted an unusual path. “I said, ‘You’ve first got to look at country blues.’ We started listening to a lot of Jimmy Reed. I got him interested in the strumming patterns on (Reed’s) ‘Big Boss Man” because they’re the same as (Williams’) ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.’ Then with the joy of listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins on ‘Can’t Do Like You Used To,’ I think Tom began discovering his own inner blues man.”
With that process underway, Crowell felt the time was right to start investigating the Williams approach to guitar. But as soon as he saw Hiddleston strum from the elbow, he called time out. “I told Tom, ‘You’re gonna get in trouble if you do this with a stiff wrist because it’s gonna be like a big lever,’” he cautioned. “With Hank, it was from the wrist. The windmill action ain’t gonna work for Hank Williams. The camera’s going to read that as an overblown performance — and Hank Williams was way too cool for that.”
“If you notice how Tom moves his shoulders in the movie, that’s real too,” Abraham points out. “That comes Hank having spina bifida, which accounts for why he was prone to use painkillers. He wasn’t just looking to get high. This was a guy who had real pain. Hank couldn’t move like Elvis. I’ve made a lot of movies, so I’m serious about getting those kinds of details right.”
That applies to the instruments used and the way they were played throughout I Saw The Light. “I think one thing that inspired Tom was that the musicians he played with were so spot-on with the feel of the Drifting Cowboys,” Jett Williams says, referring to her father’s legendary backup band. “I got sent a clip of the guys playing and I thought, ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say (steel guitarist) Don Helms is right there!’”
Abramson also made sure the guitars Hiddleston played reflected what Williams would have used at each stage of his life. “One of the first things I did when I met Tom in Toronto was to give him a new, reissued Gibson J-45,” Crowell remembers. “I said, ‘You need to start holding this guitar.’ Then, when he moved into my house, I showed him that classic photograph of Hank in the white Streamer (i.e., Airstream trailer), in his cowboy outfit and holding a (Gibson) Southern Jumbo — it must have been a ‘49.”
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But for the early scenes, Crowell made sure that Hiddleston would sport something a little less expensive. “I said, ‘Look, Hank’s not a star yet, so you need more of a beginner’s guitar. I have a 1937 Gibson L-00 Sunburst, which is something Hank might have played in honky-tonks. But then you get a record on the charts, like ‘Move It On Over,’ and the first thing you do is go and buy yourself a better guitar.’ Hank actually did go and get himself a really nice Southern Jumbo. And when superstardom came, he was playing a Martin D-28, probably 1950.”
“When Tom walks out on the Grand Ole Opry stage, we know 100 percent that he’s playing the right guitar,” Abraham adds. “You know, he played the Opry for the first time on June 11, 1949, 17 days after Junior (Hank Williams II) was born. All the microphones, the amplifiers — all that stuff is legit.”
Regardless of how you feel about I Saw The Light, Abraham’s love for Williams is evident, not just in his commitment to authenticity but in the goal he set for himself from the start. “I was never interested in trying to explain how brilliant he was because I don’t believe I can,” he says. “If you can explain to me how Bob Zimmerman, whose dad ran a furniture store in Hibbing, Minnesota, became Bob Dylan, then I’ll explain Hank Williams, who came from the dirt of Alabama.”
So what did he learn from this project? Abraham laughs. “It’s simple. The fact is, Hank Williams was an alien. That’s the only way I can explain him.”