I Saw The Light (and five other country stars who deserve their own biopic)
If you're not a fan of country music, there's every chance that the name Hank Williams might not mean all that much to you, but you probably know more of his songs than you think. For generations of country musicians, Williams is a god-like figure; a trailblazer who set the template for the modern rock star even before such a thing existed, paving the way for figures like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and countless others.
Born in Butler County, Alabama in 1923, Williams was a prodigious talent and the young singer-songwriter had his own weekly radio show by the age of 14, performing an hourly slot each week with his newly-assembled backing band The Drifting Cowboys. It was a platform for the stardom that followed, with Williams and his band touring exhaustively over the next decade. But just as Williams was a trend-setting presence on the live music circuit, so too was he an early example of the hedonistic on-the-road lifestyle that would be followed by countless touring musicians, earning himself a reputation for hard-drinking and womanising that would see him jeopardise his career and see him descend into alcohol and substance abuse, eventually contributing to his death at the age of just 29.
Though he died young, his legacy in music has been a far-reaching one and a new biopic directed by Marc Abraham, best-known for his role as a producer on films like Air Force One and Children of Men, aims to tell the story of Hank Williams' life and career. Tom Hiddleston stars as the man himself, supported by a cast that includes Elizabeth Olsen in the role of his first wife Audrey, Bradley Whitford as record company boss Fred Rose and Wrenn Schmidt as Williams' lover Bobbie Jett.
I Saw The Light, named after one of Williams' most famous songs, charts the musician's rise to stardom and his influence on the country music scene, but also examines his battles with alcohol that would see him fired from his radio show after repeatedly turning up drunk, as well as his habit of spending tour proceeds on drink. In fact, much of the film centres on William's life on the road and the strain that puts on his relationship with Audrey, but that does mean there are plenty of opportunities to showcase Williams' music.
Hiddleston, for his part, performs the songs himself in the film's touring segments and puts in an admirable shift as a Williams impersonator, although not everyone was pleased with his casting. Williams' notoriously outspoken grandson Hank Williams III, a country music star in his own right, voiced his disappointment that a British actor should take on the role of his grandfather, insisting it should have been an American – preferably someone from the South – but Williams' granddaughter Holly Williams was effusive in her praise for Hiddleston's portrayal, into which she said the actor had 'poured his heart and soul' into the performance. Southern man or not, he's very impressive nonetheless.
The film arrives in stores on Monday (September 12) and you can find a trailer for I Saw The Light below, beneath that we've picked out five other Country stars whose stories are ripe for the big screen treatment...
Glen Campbell is perhaps best-known for hits like 'Rhinestone Cowboy' and 'Wichita Lineman', but his career has been one of the most varied and interesting of any country music star, also encompassing work as a session musician, television host and actor. His career as a musician began as a sought-after guitarist and one of a handful of elite session musicians that became known as The Wrecking Crew, who between them have played on hit songs by everybody from Frank Sinatra and Phil Spector to The Beach Boys and The Byrds. A loose-knit group of around 20 or so musicians that became the go-to house band for almost every record producer based on the West coast, Campbell was the only one of their rank to translate that success into a solo career, also becoming the host of his own TV show for three years and starring in films like True Grit. Not many people can say they've shared a studio with Brian Wilson and a screen with John Wayne and this is a man with plenty of stories to tell.
Along with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn – the latter's story having already been immortalised in celluloid in the form of Michael Apted's 1980 biopic Coal Miner's Daughter – Dolly Parton was a trailblazing presence on the country music scene as both a songwriter and performer, becoming one of the biggest-selling artists in the genre's history. But there's much more to Dolly than her talents as a songwriter and despite her career-long projection of her image as the archetypal 'dumb blonde', Dolly is a shrewd as they come and has never allowed herself to be sidelined as a female in a male-dominated industry. Growing up in a family she described herself as being 'dirt poor', Dolly's story is a proper rags-to-riches tale and as one of the most decorated artists the country music scene has ever produced it's surprising that nobody has given her story the Hollywood treatment up until now. A made-for-TV movie, Coat
of Many Colours, aired last year, but this is a living legend that really deserves a proper, big-budget biopic.
During the early 1990s the all-female bluegrass group Dixie Chicks had been building an impressive following in their native state of Texas, but it was with the addition of lead vocalist Natalie Maines in 1995 that they began to broaden their sound with pop/rock crossover records and by the end of the decade they had scored some big hits with albums like Wide Open Spaces and Fly, marking themselves out as one of the genre's hottest properties and touted by some as the future of country music. But then in 2003, during a concert in London, vocalist Maines made a comment to the audience heavily criticising then-President George W. Bush, particularly for his role in the Iraq war. No big deal, you might think; in places like London, New York or California it was difficult to find a voice in popular music at that time that wasn't critical of Bush and the Iraq War. But the Dixie Chicks were country stars first and foremost, with their most loyal fanbase largely ensconced in America's 'bible-belt' region, where support of Bush and the war was strong. The group found themselves the subject of much public criticism and radio stations across the region refused to play their records, with corporate sponsors withdrawing support as the result of boycotts against their products. Not since John Lennon's 'bigger than Jesus' comment had there been such a public backlash against an artist and while they largely stood by their comments and continued their careers, they were never viewed by their fans in quite the same way afterwards.
As one of the genre's longest-serving stalwarts, Merle Haggard is a highly respected figure in country music, but his story is more interesting than most. Having struggled with the death of his father at an early age, Haggard became something of a delinquent and had frequent brushes with the law during his teenage years that saw him imprisoned several times, but he straightened his life out and began a career in music that would soon see him score a big hit with the song 'Okie from Muskogee'. The song's lyrical themes of being a proud middle-American and refusing a lifestyle of drug-taking and challenging authority struck a chord with many country music fans, but over the years Haggard has given varying accounts of his intentions behind the song's message and whether or not it was intended as a biting satire on bible-belt small-mindedness. Perhaps keen not annoy his audience, who had taken the lyrics at face value, Haggard played down the suggestion at the time, although he later admitted to smoking huge amounts of marijuana in his forties and accounts of his cocaine-fuelled partying have since become the stuff of legend. (Interestingly, he was also one of the few voices in country music to support the Dixie Chicks in the wake of their comments about George Bush). He's not one of those country stars whose success has transcended the genre, but his life story would make for a riveting big-screen spectacle.
Our final pick features a man who was, during the 1960s, pretty much the biggest star that Nashville had to offer. Jones was barely out of the charts in that decade and while his achievements are probably worthy of a film in their own right, his reputation as a drinker has almost surpassed that of his status as a recording artist. In one famous incident occurred while married to his second wife Shirley Copley, who had gone to great lengths to keep her husband off the booze, hiding the keys to both of their cars so that he wouldn't be able to drive to the liquor store in Beaumont 8 miles away. Jones instead found the keys to their sit-on lawnmower and made the journey to buy alcohol along a busy highway at 5 miles an hour. In another incident following a bender lasting several days, Jones was straightjacketed and left in a padded cell for 10 days while he sweated the alcohol out of his system. By the end of the 1970s Jones was destitute, bankrupt and apparently living in his car, surviving on junk food. It's harrowing stuff, but few country stars have self-destructed in such spectacular fashion and the man once married to Tammy Wynette has to be one of the genre's most entertaining figures.