(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Much like your grandfather’s old 1953 Cadillac, the Hank Williams legend needs to be wheeled out of the barn every few years, gassed up and oiled up and taken for a spin, just to see how she still drives.
Turns out she still runs pretty good, yes sir.
The late architect of all things good about mid-20th century country music, as well as all good country that has followed in his wake, still remains a pretty sturdy legend.
Largely unschooled in the ways of composition and musically wise beyond his young years, Williams burned through an eternity of living, loving, suffering and songwriting and performing in a few short years. And left a red-hot musical catalogue behind when he flamed out at age 29 in that legendary last ride in his robin’s egg-blue 1953 Caddy convertible on his way to a gig that he is doomed to try to make for all eternity.
The story has everything Hollywood loves. A handsome young backwoods youth, beautiful blondes, overnight stardom, Cadillacs, rock n’ roll (ahead of its time), fan frenzy and enough drugs, sex and alcohol to fuel movies and TV shows for years to come. And the romantic, tragic early death of our star. And the mystery of a lost daughter.
Hollywood, not too surprisingly, has not done too well by Hank Williams. The quasi-official movie that came out a little more than a decade after his death remains a laughable example of movie-making clichés at their peak. Your Cheatin’ Heart starred the ever-tan young Hollywood hunklet George Hamilton (Elvis Presley was actually considered for the role) as a less-than-believable Hank, and a cast of stock characters from Hollywood was trotted out. The result was characters who are walking clichés, speaking in accents to cringe at, uttering cornpone sayings, singing lame music and hurling unbelievable sentiments at the audience.
Since then, Hollywood has shied away from any more sanctioned attempts at putting Hank up on the silver screen. The chief reason over the years has been control of the music. That’s still the major obstacle.
That’s not to say the legend has not seen its share of attempts, some brave and some foolhardy, to film the legend inspired by Hank, if not his actual life story itself.
There are a few such films worth mentioning, that are still very much worth seeing. The most recent, the exemplary Crazy Heart, featured a worthy performance by Jeff Bridges as an over-the-hill Hank-ish character trying for a comeback. Robert Duvall performed similar yeoman’s duties in Tender Mercies, as did Rip Torn in the memorable Payday.
Not surprisingly, the films are mainly concerned with the myth after the stardom ends, after the star’s fire burns out, when the alcohol and drugs and phony friends and crooked businessmen have all extracted their toll from the star and left only a husk of a man.
The latest film venture into Hank Williams land is The Last Ride, which attempts to compress the essence and meaning of his life and career into the last couple of days of his life. His life and career have hit rock bottom at the end of 1952, and on a pitiful and ultimately futile comeback try, he tries to make it to a New Year’s Eve show in Charleston, W.Va.
The Last Ride, which is labeled a “fact-based dramatic film,” concerns itself with that last drive northward from Montgomery, Ala. The trip and the movie turn into a two-day encounter between the sickly, oft-intoxicated music star and a young, new driver hired to chauffeur him. Both characters make Important Self Discoveries along the way.
The Hank character here, who calls himself both “Luke” and “Mr. Wells,” is portrayed by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame. (By the by, Williams often went by the name “Herman P. Willis,” and his alter ego was “Luke the Drifter.” But there was no “Mr. Wells” in his history.) Thomas does not look or sound like Hank Williams very much, but he gives it a valiant try, right down to the terminal-sounding hacking deep cough.
Remember that I mentioned up top here that music rights are always the stumbling block regarding Hank Williams movies? You will not hear Hank Williams sing on The Last Ride soundtrack, for obvious reasons. You do briefly hear Hank’s spoken voice, since that has apparently eluded copyright control. But it’s very disconcerting here for a Hank Williams fan to hear a WGN/Chicago radio announcer introduce “the song ’Cold, Cold Heart’ written by Hank Williams” and then hear a strange voice (in this case a singer named Doug Anderson) actually singing that song.
And did Hank Williams ever actually say, “Have a nice day” or “Have a good one”? I don’t think so.
The real star here is the 1953 blue Cadillac convertible. A truly noble car, it floats serenely through rain and snow, cruising across the Alabama and Tennessee countryside (actually central Arkansas, where this was filmed). Ultimately, it delivers the Hank character to his final destination. And we all know what that is.
Ultimately, The Last Ride is a small but brave movie that tries very hard.
Hank Williams was much larger than that.