Hank Williams Biopic 'I Saw the Light' Is First Film to License Country Legend's Music in 50 Years

Sam Emerson/Sony Pictures Classics
Hiddleston in 'I Saw the Light.' 

Behind Sony/ATV Music Publishing's decision to unlock the vault and license several classic songs for the film.

For 28 years, Troy Tomlinson has been the gatekeeper of Hank Williams’ 200-plus-song catalog, first at Acuff-Rose Music and now as president/CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville. And for just as long he said no to everyone asking to license the country music pioneer’s songs for a biopic.

Part of his discernment was the weighty notion that the next film about Williams would be -- like the 2004 Ray Charles biopic, Ray or the 2005 Johnny Cash film, Walk The Line -- the movie that introduced Williams to a new generation and “we needed the right people to do the story.”

When film producer Marc Abraham (Children of Men, Robocop) came calling, Tomlinson changed his tune. Unlike the other filmmakers, Abraham -- who wrote and directed the new biopic, I Saw the Light (out March 25) -- brought along the script, based on Colin Escott's well-regarded 1994 biography on Williams,  “Someone leading with ‘Let’s secure the rights and we’ll come up with a script later’ was never really attractive to me. What was important to me was the story before the rights,” says Tomlinson. “Marc said, ‘I want to [show] you how I’ve handled the man behind the music,’ Tomlinson says. “I could feel his love for this man. I remember telling my wife he really wants to tell the story right."

That meant not sugar-coating Williams’ substance abuse and philandering; it also meant finding an actor who could sing. For the Sony Pictures Classics film -- the first movie about Williams’ life to feature his music since 1964’s Your Cheatin’ Heart -- Abraham cast Thor’s Tom Hiddleston. “I told him he was going to have to sing and there will be people who will criticize you,” Abraham says. “This movie isn't an imitation of Hank Williams. There are probably 15 people out there who will sound more like Hank Williams than Tom. What I needed was a brilliant actor."

Hiddleston moved to Nashville prior to the film’s shoot in Shreveport, La., to spend five weeks training with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who served as the film's executive music producer. Hiddleston has a rich baritone, where "Williams was a reedy tenor who yodeled," says Crowell. "I said, 'We have to get your knees wobbly and loosen up your throat.'"

Hiddleston became so good that, at the actor’s urging, he sang a number of songs in the movie live, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," while the others were pre-recorded.

As important as the vocal lessons was "getting a young Englishman in his 30s to understand country blues," says Crowell, whose father took him to see Williams perform when he was 2, prompting a life-long love affair with Williams’ music. 

Abraham declines to reveal how much of his $13 million budget went to pay for Williams’ songs but says Sony/ATV licensed usage for up to 20 tunes, including Williams classics "Hey Good Lookin'," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the title track. "Our intent from the first conversation was to provide enough song opportunities to Marc so the story could be told properly. I didn’t approach it by 'How much money can I get?'" says Tomlinson. He adds that there’s no rule of thumb for figuring out how much to charge for the iconic songs. "You use historical data and what's the fair market value, but there's no chart you can go to. Much of it is negotiation and a feel between the two parties and landing on what you think is a fair fee."

Tom Hiddleston on Singing & Becoming Hank Williams for Biopic

The movie features around five or six Williams songs, "based on contextual story telling," Abraham says. "I knew I'd start with 'Cold, Cold Heart' to show he's a literary type as much as a musician. I wanted to force people to sit there and listen to those words."

Abraham also made the decision for the film to feature licensed music and not a score, although composer Aaron Zigman did write some interstitial music that runs under a few scenes. 

The film’s soundtrack, which includes Hiddleston singing Williams’ tunes as well as other contemporary songs from that period, comes out March 25 on Sony/Legacy Recordings.

While Abraham waits for the public to have its say at the box office, he says he's already gotten all the affirmation he needs from Williams’ granddaughter, Holly, who told him, “We have a pretty screwed-up family and I'm so moved by the movie. You treated everyone respectfully."

A version of this article first appeared in the April 2 issue of Billboard.