When it came time for movie star Tom Hiddleston to learn how to capture the frenetic life of Hank Williams — in music, accent and mannerisms — for the film I Saw the Light, he turned to one of Nashville’s best-known musicians, writers, good guys and student of all things Hank: Rodney Crowell.
Crowell, who served as executive music producer for the film, said it really wasn’t such a difficult task.
“Tom pretty much has perfect pitch. It’s a gift from on high,” says Crowell, explaining that the actor is much more accustomed to singing forcefully in the theater, where the voices comes from deep in the gut to reach the folks who are seated in the back rows.
As Williams, though, the actor needed to emulate the singer’s style.
“Hank sang from the neck up and from the knees down,” says Crowell, adding that every morning he had to help the singer get rid of the British vowel sounds of his own youth and replace them with the vowels as produced by a dirt-poor kid from Southern Alabama.
In doing so, Crowell helped the star acquire a convincing Deep South accent for both dialogue and for his singing. Crowell — who was 2 years, 4 months old when his father took him to see Williams in his hometown of Houston, Texas, says the actor was a good student.
“When I first heard him sing, I thought: ‘This can work,’” says Crowell, noting he knew he had succeeded in coaching Hiddleston when the actor became adept not only at singing in sound-alike pitch with the character he is portraying, but he “learned how to yodel.”
For the music, Crowell assembled a batch of young players from Nashville’s so-called “Americana movement,” which owes its roots much more to Hank than does today’s more pop-flavored mainstream country music. Together, they worked hard to replicate the musical stylings of a legend who really was just a man.
The movie plays heavily to the dark, hard side of Williams’ soul, unlike in previous film incarnations where viewers saw much more light than darkness. And Hiddleston, better known for roles such as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor/Marvel movies such as Thor, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World, literally inhabits Williams in this portrayal.
The rapid pace of filming the gritty tale of Williams’ artistic rise and demise fueled the final product, according to writer-director Marc Abraham.
“We did 156 scenes in 57 locations in 39 days,” says Abraham, leaning back in a deluxe Nashville hotel in a late autumn 2015 give-and-take about the film and its mission and how this gritty portrayal was captured by Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen as Williams’ sometimes ferocious wife, Audrey.
“Tom sang ‘Lovesick Blues’ and ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ in the same day,” says the director, noting that the former is the song of a hopeful young man whose career is about to break big and the latter came at the peak of his tragic career often ruled by the booze and painkillers, in part, used to help cope with a lifelong back affliction.
Olsen, although her character does not appear in every scene, says that pace helped. She also made sure she remained enveloped in the production throughout the filming.
“I had a lot of time off in between when I had to work,” she said. “But I didn’t leave. I’d still visit the set. I wanted to be part of the movie.”
As the director nods, she adds “When you work quickly to get these scenes done at this pace, then an actor learns to take risks,” she says. “A lot of times it was ‘let’s try this,’ and we would.”
She calls that intensity and what it produces as a “tangible” element of the film that in two hours tells the tale of just a few years in the mad-paced life of the original rock star, Williams, whose flame burned brightly and was snuffed quickly. Like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.
Abraham says this pacing was effective in reproducing this well-chronicled slice of Williams’ life.
“I can’t psychoanalyze him as a child and see how that affected him,” he adds. Instead he stuck to his mission of telling the tale with true-as-possible grit pacing.
Of course, the life story of Williams is well known. Abraham said his intent all along was to tell the best, truest and grittiest version of Hank’s life, the multi-layered gospel-driven Luke the Drifter who released God-reflecting tunes like “I Saw the Light” and the guy who boozed, pilled-up and womanized his way through “Lovesick Blues,” “Move It on Over” and “Honky Tonkin’.”
While the story focuses on the singer and the wife, it’s only a part of the sub-plot that describes his sexual appetite and candle-burning life, Olsen says she became obsessed with giving Audrey a human face.
“No one ever has a nice thing to say about her,” she said.
But yet, she adds, the woman helped guide Hank’s career even during periods when he was not married to her. Olsen notes her portrayal was not just based on what people said about Audrey, but also on the binders and collages of press clippings that she was able to peruse in the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville.
“She was so diligent at trying to be a businesswoman,” she says of the woman who helped Hank learn about heartache but who also raised their son, Hank Jr., with an absentee father in the Williams’ sprawling ranch house among a string of millionaires’ mansions and estates on Nashville’s Franklin Road.
The volatile nature of the relationship as portrayed in the film perhaps is why, while he is thanked in the credits for his assistance in the filming, Hank Williams Jr. opted against doing any media interviews to promote the project.
Sure, there is a lot of drama and plenty of sadness in the life of Hank Williams, who did create the mold for rock ‘n’ roll or country stardom with his charismatic stage persona and his self-penned music.
And it is that last item — the music — that impresses most, as Hiddleston delivers spot-on performances of some of the greatest songs ever written.