I Saw The Light

I was terribly excited when I saw this DVD on the library shelf. I had been wanting to watch this 2016 film since I read an article in the newpapers about it several months ago. I wonder why it was not shown in a cinema here; or why it’s taking so long to come to a cinema here. (Some movies, like this biopic, are screened in Singapore several months after it opens in the US.) Anyway, if it makes its way here, I’ll be sure to watch it again on the big screen and listen to all the Hank Williams hits with better acoustics.

The film opens with the spotlight on Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) singing Cold, Cold Heart on stage as the credits come on. It is based on the book “Hank Williams: The Biography” by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen.

On 15 Dec 1944, Hank married divorcee Audrey Mae Shepherd (Elizabeth Olsen) (who has a daughter). Audrey did not get along with her mother-in-law. Both Hank and Audrey were also strong characters who wanted to be boss and both wanted their pride. Their quarrels were often and they were almost on the verge of divorce when Audery realised she was pregnant. Hank felt fighting with Audrey all the time was better than being divorced; he still needed her and was not ready to say goodbye. Their son was born in Dec 1946 and both sang I Saw The Light to the newborn. This song would be sung many times in the film.

Hank wrote all the songs he performed, including Honky Tonkin’, Blues Come Around, Love Sick Blues, Look At Me Now and Hey, Good Looking. He said in an interview for The Tribune that “I write what I write and I sing what I sing ‘cos that’s what I do”. He showed his fans his anger, misery and even shame because he was sincere and there was nothing phony about him.

Hank suffered from spina bifida occulta, that is, the vertebrae aren’t completely closed. It gave him a lot of problems; it’s chronic, and it’s never going to go away. Yet he had women on the side: first, Bobbie who got pregnant but Hank refused to marry her though he promised to send her money for the child and would even be a dad, and  then 19-year-old Billie whom he married in Dec 1952 in New Orleans.

Hank became more sick and his doctor said it was due to the Chloral Hydrate which he took for his pain. It was such a powerful drug that it was used to sedate circus animals and was never supposed to be administered with alcohol (a problem Hank had) or someone with a heart condition (which Hank also had).

Hank was supposed to perform on New Year’s Eve 1952 and New Year’s Day 1953 but died in his car on the way to do the shows. The cause of death was severe heart damage. He was 29.

In six years of recording, Hank had a remarkable 36 hit songs and sold over 11 million records. Fans, friends and family gave him the state’s grandest send-off ever, accompanied by the mournful sounds of his buddies’ steel guitars and weeping fiddles. (Here, there’s actual footage of the send-off.)

Besides I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Jambalaya, I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, Men With Broken Hearts, Why Don’t You Love Me and more, written by Hank Williams, this flim also features a few other songs popular during that time.

This film shows what an icon Hank Williams is: he’s someone who means so much to so many people; he’s a young man with a genuine talent, struggling with his own demons and trying to make his life work. It tells of a great artist’s life, and his relationship with the people in his world, especially his mother Lillie (Cherry Jones) and Audrey.

Lillie was a stage mother and a stage manager, a very domineering woman, tough as nails, and absolutely devoted to her son’s career. She fought with Audrey to be the primary woman in his life. Audrey was tough, strong and business-minded but was also focused on a career of her own (she wanted to sing as well), and this was one of the biggest of their problems. She and Hank had a wild, turbulent and passionate relationship, and out of this came some of his greatest songs.

What makes Hank special is that he was authentic, and he sang about what he knew, which was about love and loneliness, and grief and pain. It connected with people. Most of his songs are not complicate, but like a lot of blue songs, the simpler they are, the more powerful they are, and the more fundamental the emotiion is, which makes the song relatable and durable. These are his personal expressions of his life experiences. His songs are fascinatiing and inspiring.

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