I SAW THE LIGHT tells the story of the iconic, tormented singer-songwriter Hank Williams who revolutionized country music with his raw charisma, haunting voice and original songs, most of which are considered American standards today and have been recorded many times over by pop, rock and country artists alike.
Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) emerged from the local Alabama music scene after World War II. Wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) was desperate to sing by his side despite being of lesser talent, which fueled an extremely turbulent home life. But Williams' ability to write songs covering a wide range of emotions, using his own personal troubles as inspiration, became the essence of country music. In the end, he realized his dreams: hit records, a place on Nashville's prestigious stage and radio show the Grand Ole Opry and even guest spots on the then-new medium of TV.
Refusing to hide his longtime alcoholism and dependency on painkillers behind the wholesome facade Nashville and the Opry expect of its stars, Hank remained prolific and immensely popular until the very end of his life. Like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, Hank's star burned brightly, but briefly over the six years before he died on New Year's Day of 1953. He was 29.
Today, country is the most popular music in America, and Hank Williams had much to do with that. His enduring qualities explain his inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1961), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1970) and the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame (1987). Williams had 33 hit country singles during his life. 30 reached the Top Ten; eight hit Number One. Seven more Top Tens came after his death with three going to Number One.
I have been a fan of country music since I was an eight-year old kid growing up in Kentucky. When I was a college student I wrote a paper about the influence of the genre on American culture. It focused on Hank Williams, a man many have called one of this country's greatest poets as well as the first "rock star"; even to the point of living hard and dying young. His indelible imprint on today's music world has not diminished in over 60 years.
When I decided to make a film about his Hank's life, I was intent on telling the story through the window of his relationships with powerful women, 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 William's 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 is 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 is 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 from Hibbing Minnesota, whose father ran a furniture store, became Bob Dylan.
I SAW THE LIGHT tells William's 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. Then came the music. The leap from the one to the other is for me, where all the power lies.
FROM DIRECTOR MARC ABRAHAM...
"Hank was in some ways probably the first rock star. It's hard to question that," says Marc Abraham, I SAW THE LIGHT'S writer and director. "I'm not sure how many people truly understand how influential (he was). Certainly Dylan understands it. Springsteen understands it. Neil Young understands it.
"Hank Williams' life was not only extraordinary even in terms of what a young man goes through in a brief time, but he was a brilliant artist who not only changed contemporary music, but had an impact on literature. Men in the 1940's weren't singing songs like "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Bing Crosby wasn't talking about crying."
Abraham fully recognized Hank's tragic side, fraught with demons and the substance abuse that prematurely ended his life at age 29. Other music giants, he adds, suffered similar fates. "Hank crashed before (doomed jazzman) Charlie Parker. There were some old blues guys (who died similarly), but not somebody at the lofty peak Hank was at, no one in that spot had gone down with that kind of ferocity."
He embraced this project with both the skills of a respected filmmaker and the passion of a lifelong country fan.
"I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. That's about three hours north of Nashville. I went to sleep each and every night listening to the radio. In fact, my father at the time worked for a radio station. I wasn't of Hank's vintage, (but) you start listening to WSM beaming to you from down there and it gets into your spirit. From then on I just was a country music fan. It was romantic, it was storytelling to me. Whether it was Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" or the first record I ever bought, Marty Robbins' "El Paso." It was my first real introduction to poetry.
I grew to love George Jones and Merle, and Kristofferson, but not an hour on a station went by without "Jambalaya" or "Hey Good Lookin'." I loved "Cold, Cold Heart", I wanted to go "Honky Tonkin'."
Though Abraham felt he had a deep understanding of Williams' music and had done extensive research into his entire life, he deliberately avoided the cradle-to-grave approach followed by many musical and non-musical biopics. "To be frank I was never very interested in the early years of Hank's life, I felt we had many times been shown, young artists (and remember this is a movie about really young people) being taught their craft by older black musicians, or poor hillbilly's, nothing wrong with that but it wasn't my focus. I really cared about being supremely accurate and authentic, but I was dedicated to a different style of film. My influences had been Bob Fosse or what Scorsese did with Raging Bull. I'm not comparing myself to those masters, but I loved the way they rendered their biographical films."
"And then if you can sweep the audience into the world, really immerse them with truth and the smell and the number on the thermometer, then maybe you just might move them."
Of star Tom Hiddleston, who actually sings every note in the film, Abraham says, "He's an amazing actor and truly I cannot imagine anyone, anywhere more dedicated. For me, I just cast the guy I thought could do it. I never imagined honestly, Tom could bring to life what he did in the way he did." He also singles out Elizabeth Olsen, who portrays Hank's musically challenged wife Audrey, calling her portrayal amazing, adding, "Even though her character of Audrey wasn't really much of a vocalist, Elizabeth's actually quite a good singer. And she had to work hard to not sound great."
The director came up with the idea of having the character of Fred Rose, Hank's producer, song publisher and surrogate father, portrayed by Bradley Whitford, as "a narrator, which allowed me to indulge in more realistic dialogue and avoid exposition," adding, "at the same time he occupies a real space in the movie as a patron and father figure."
Abraham is equally effusive about the portrayal of Hank's band the Drifting Cowboys, noting, "Every one of those boys are musicians. Everyone who's playin' in there is actually playing. I don't have to cut away. For the most part they're not even actors except for Casey (Jerry Rivers) and Josh (Sammy Pruett) a little bit. Wes, who plays Don Helms, works in a guitar store."
He was impressed by the film's Executive Music Producer Rodney Crowell, who produced the sharp, accurate re-recordings of Hank's recording. A veteran Nashville singer, songwriter and producer, Crowell grew up surrounded by traditional country music in his native Texas. He became a major artist and vital part of country's 1980's New Traditionalist movement, racking up five #1 singles late in that decade. He shared Abraham's passion for doing it right.
"Rodney does not suffer any fools," Abraham says. "He's an incredibly smart, erudite guy who has even had a book on the New York Times best seller list." Noting Crowell's authenticity, he adds, "We recorded on old instruments. We recorded this stuff in the round. We used (old-time tube) amplifiers. You can't get more real than our tracks."
That passion extends to the film's aesthetic. "If you look at Meredith Boswell's production design, it's not trying to draw attention to itself, and it's so subtly accurate," Abraham explains. "That's the fabric that weaves the soul into film as well. Color home movies of Hank's actual 1953 funeral end the film. "It's incredible footage," Abraham enthuses. "We got it from the grandson of the guy who shot it. His granddaddy was a policeman."
"I've often been aware that when some people think of country music and the Opry, and they think these people are a bunch of hicks. They're not. They're polite and courtly, but they didn't fall off a turnip truck. Just because they talk with an accent doesn't mean they don't know what time it is. And look at the plethora of songs that the genre has given us, the sheer artistic might of country. And I wanted people to realize that Hank's influence was beyond Nashville, or Montgomery, Dallas or Macon; it wasn't just something that took place out on a farm. That's why it was so important to me to show Hank in Hollywood, and in Germany on tour. He played five TV shows in New York. This isn't Hee-Haw."
In the end, Abraham says, the film ultimately remains true to his own approach to filmmaking. "I always try to remain subtle. Sometimes too much so, but when it came to Hank, I just wanted to do him true and right."