Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave
David Acomba, Director (1980)
Serendipity and fair’s fair.
Without Greil Marcus going on about this back in 1990 (when it re-aired on the Nashville Network and Marcus evidently thought it was new) and me reading about it in his newly collected Real Life Rock columns and then, mere days later, coming across a cheap copy in the dollar store just down the road that I only started going to a few months back because I discovered they sold the hydrocortisone salve I occasionally use on an unspeakable rash for a quarter less than the one right next to my house this never would have found it’s way to my DVD player and I’d be a poorer man without even knowing it.
Without benefit of either looking or sounding much like the original, Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters, who had played the role on stage for years, inhabits Williams the same way Philip Baker Hall inhabited Richard Nixon in Secret Honor a few years later. As with Hall, I spent the first minute thinking “this is never gonna work.” Then the second minute arrived and the meaningful distinctions between actor, role and role model disappeared. I never concluded whether this was more reassuring than disorienting but I was riveted either way. Five minutes in, I knew there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks.
The setup is simple enough (and enough like Secret Honor to make me wonder if Robert Altman saw this when it first aired). Hank is taking his famous last ride through an Appalachian night (he died in the back seat of his chauffeured car somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia), and, drifting in and out of consciousness, he dreams of stopping off and giving a show in one of the small town bars where, by chance, his band is already set up and waiting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd who could probably never afford a trip to the Opry.
You can watch movies a long time and never find anyone walking a tighter wire than Waters, director Acomba and playwright/screenwriter Maynard Collins do here. Part of the tension in a first viewing of something like this is in wondering if/when somebody will set a foot wrong. When it never happens, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, because the slightest slip, the one that always feels like it’s coming any second now, would wreck the mood.
It never happens here.This is one of those instances where even the technical limitations work entirely in the movie’s favor. That scene pictured above is just about what the movie looks like and while some of that is probably due to a low-grade transfer I had a feeling a pristine copy wouldn’t look much better. It certainly wouldn’t work any better, because anything clearer wouldn’t let you smell the smoke and whiskey.
Most remarkably, it’s all in there. The Hank Williams Story. Between his songs, the stories he tells to set them up, the bitter remonstrances of his waking moments in the back seat of his Doom-mobile, you get a distillation that touches everything essential and has a feeling of completion, as though he (Williams himself, more than the actor or the filmmakers) is scripting his own life and planning to live just long enough to reach the only end that was ever possible.
And the biggest part of that story isn’t the alcoholism or the Dr. Feelgoods or marriage or divorce or fatherhood or spats with the band or even the Death’s Head hanging over his shoulder. No, the biggest part, and the part the movie catches so well it’s literally breathtaking is the connection to his audience, the final quality that made him the standard country singers–and country lives–were measured against for half a century.
Until, that is, very, very recently.
The people who clap and dance and fight and “Hallelujah!” their way through this film’s imaginary show aren’t represented as characters, but they aren’t reduced to types either. They have a collective life and three-dimensionality that goes beyond even the air of lives being lived that deepens John Ford’s universe. And, whether seen as extras in a low-budget movie that started filming the day John Lennon was assassinated, or literal ghosts of the audience Hank Williams must have sometimes felt he had dreamed into being, there will be a day in the not too distant future when they’ll be unrecognizable. A twenty-year-old might have trouble recognizing them now. Living in a world where it’s always Saturday night has not only robbed Williams’ principal themes of longing and regret of the force they had for the audience that swirls back and forth between him and you while this film is running, it’s also taken the fun out of Saturday night itself.
Whether it was possible to self-consciously articulate this lost world’s distance from the present in 1980, I don’t know. But the feelings inherent in the loss must have at least been available to the senses, because without even calling on “Lost Highway” or “Ramblin’ Man” (there is a chilling version of “Alone and Forsaken”), Sneezy Waters and company managed to write themselves into the Hank Williams story and enlarge an already legendary life it in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any movie, let alone a “biopic” that consists entirely of a car-ride and a fake concert that never happened.
I’m sure it’s possible to see this and write it off. It’s not Citizen Kane. On some level, it’s barely even there.
But I’d advise approaching it with caution
If it gets you, it might not let you go.