For a man who left behind him less than 10 minutes of video footage, Hank Williams has a remarkably long filmography. Inspired by the recent release of I Saw the Light, I’ve been delving into it and checking out some titles new to me and others which I hadn’t seen in years. There are at least four feature-length movies explicitly about him, plus a couple of roman-a-clefs and a handful of other films in which he cameos. Not bad for a guy who blew his first and only Hollywood pitch meeting (recreated hilariously in I Saw the Light).
Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (1980) falls into the new-to-me category, and it’s easily the least ambitious of the lot. Never theatrically released owing to rights issues, it was made for Canadian television on grainy videotape and shot in only six days on essentially a single set. Its cast is a no-name ensemble up to and including Sneezy Waters, who plays Williams.
Nonetheless, it’s a rewarding venture for Williams fans. Waters—though not nearly the actor I Saw the Light’s Tom Hiddleston is—is better cast as Williams than is Hiddleston, Your Cheatin’ Heart’s George Hamilton or The Last Ride’s Henry Thomas. More important, though, he’s given the opportunity to do frequently what Hiddleston and Hamilton do only occasionally, and Thomas not at all: sing Williams’ songs straight through, from beginning to end, without camera cuts, overlapping dialogue or film edits.
Directed by David Acomba and written by Maynard Collins based on his own 1977 play, The Show He Never Gave is hardly a movie at all. Its narrative framework is slim: On the car ride to Canton, Ohio, a dying Williams hallucinates the show he’s planning to give there, though we realize that he’ll never make it.
Besides occasional brief returns to Williams in that ominous Cadillac, the entire film takes place at a small honky-tonk (nothing like the place where Williams actually was going, but give him a break—the man was hallucinating), as Williams entertains the audience with 23 songs and some stage patter. Given that the film runs only 86 minutes, that obviously leaves little time for anything else, and indeed there isn’t much: a between-sets conversation between Williams and a comely waitress and another with a black worker who’s an amateur musician, neither of which adds much to the movie.
The songs, though, are a treat. The set list includes the obvious hits, such as “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but also some rarities, including a couple of Luke the Drifter songs/recitations. In doing so, it offers a much more rounded portrait of Williams as a musician than any of the biopics.
Waters (who also starred in the play) isn’t uncannily like Williams, but he bears a general resemblance to the singer, and his performing style captures the way Williams came across to audiences (to judge by books such as Colin Escott’s Hank Williams: The Biography) better than anyone else before or since. He captures Williams’ bent-kneed, bobbing style of performance nicely, and isn’t afraid to let his voice wander off-pitch for emotional effect, at which Williams was masterful.
His voice lacks the real article’s piercing clarity, admittedly. His performances don’t always sound exactly like Williams’ recordings, but almost certainly Williams’ own performances strayed from the recorded versions too. This probably doesn’t sound or look like the show Williams would have given on January 1, 1953, if he had made it there, but it sounds like a show Williams could have given, and that’s no small thing.
If your goal in watching a Hank Williams movie is to learn what he was like as a person, I Saw the Light is the one you want. If you want Hollywood gloss, Your Cheatin’ Heart has its charms. Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave has little to offer on either count.
If you want the closest possible approximation to seeing Williams perform live, though, it’s the one you’re looking for.