Tinseltown took over Music City this past weekend, with the glitzy premiere of the highly anticipated Hank Williams biopic, I Saw the Light. Stars of the big-screen adaptation of the book, Hank Williams: The Biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt and William Macewen, walked the red carpet (which, for the record, was actually green), as invited guests filled the twin theaters at Nashville’s historic Belcourt theater. British actor Tom Hiddleston turns in a career-defining role as the troubled singer-songwriter, whose influence is seen not only in nearly every country artist who came after him, but also in such iconic performers as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Hiddleston’s casting as the creator of such country standards as “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and “Why Don’t You Love Me,” may have been a controversial choice for the lead, coming from such roles as the villainous Loki in Marvel’s Thor and Avengers films, but the actor, who did all of his own singing in the role, creates a memorable portrait of the anguished offstage life Williams led, even as his star was on the rise throughout the late Forties and early Fifties. Williams, who died in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1952, at just 29 years old, has been depicted onscreen before (including the generally forgettable 1964 film, Your Cheatin’ Heart, staring George Hamilton), but Hiddleston’s is an astonishingly honest, haunting portrayal, further distinguished by the actor’s own singing of many of Williams’ best-loved hits. His hope for the film, Hiddleston says, is for fans of Williams’ music to feel like they know more about the man who was often called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare.”
“Anyone who doesn’t know Hank, I hope the first thing they do is to buy some of his records, because I think the music’s incredible,” the actor (who has portrayed actual Shakespearean characters) tells Rolling Stone Country. “I hope that they’re inspired to learn more about him and his everlasting impact on American music.”
A London native, Hiddleston spent several weeks in Nashville before filming and was musically mentored for the film by executive music producer Rodney Crowell, learning how to walk, talk and sing like the Alabama-born Williams. The I Saw the Light soundtrack was produced by Crowell, alongside music supervisor G. Marc Roswell, co-producer Carter Little and Nashville-based engineer Ray Kennedy, who used vintage equipment and instruments for the recording. Kennedy recalls that Crowell couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with the film’s producers at his first dinner meeting with them to discuss his involvement.
“I had already set up a meeting with Rodney about a completely different project before that meeting,” Kennedy tells Rolling Stone Country. “He came by my studio and said, ‘I’m going to run out of time because I have to go to this dinner about this Hank Williams film.’ They had already called me about being the engineer and asked if I’d be willing to record and mix it all, so I told Rodney that. So when he got to the dinner, they said, ‘We’ve chosen and engineer and we hope you’re going to be OK with him.’ When they said my name, he said, ‘You guys are way behind. I already hired him.'”
Other stars of the film who attended the premiere included Bradley Whitford (“West Wing,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), who portrays songwriter and music publisher Fred Rose, a mentor to Williams who, Whitford says, understood the demons the singer faced, having faced his own in his youth.
“By the time he met Hank he was well beyond that,” Whitford tells Rolling Stone Country. “But it was an interesting note in that relationship, to mentor this monumental talent who is still struggling with those issues in the pre-12-step-awareness days.”
Of the one-time Grand Ole Opry star’s influence, Whitford says, “To me, Hank Williams is kind of like the Ramones of country music. The songs are these very pared-down, exuberant expressions, whether it’s ‘I Saw the Light’ or ‘Hey Good Lookin’. These are very powerful, pared-down things. ‘Hey Good Lookin” reminded me of ‘I Wanna Be Sedated.'”
Also attending the event were stars Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Audrey Williams (Hank’s first wife and mother of Hank Jr.), Maddie Hassett (who portray his second wife, Billie Jean Jones) and Wrenn Schmidt, who plays Bobbie Jett, the mother of Hank’s daughter, singer Jett Williams. It was the first opportunity the actress and Jett Williams had to meet face-to-face. Country star Jamie O’Neal and actress Charlene Tilton, who now lives in Nashville, were among other guests who attended the screening.
After the film, Hiddleston, along with some of actor/musicians who portrayed Williams’ band, the Drifting Cowboys, took the stage at downtown Nashville’s Acme Feed & Seed, where a crowd had gathered for an after-party. Hiddleston strummed his guitar and performed several Hank tunes, including “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” and “Hey Good Lookin’.
I Saw the Light opens in theaters nationwide in March of 2016.