"This is a scary story,"The Last Ride
director Harry Thomason tells us.
chronicles the last 72 hours of Hank Williams's life. That's not an especially happy story, but it's not exactly scary. No, Thomason is talking about his experiences making the movie. At the beginning of the project, Thomason had been told that the Williams family was on board and fully supported the film. Thomason eventually found out that wasn't true.
"We were led to believe that the Williams family has given their blessing for the project. Being naive, we just rolled along," Thomason tells us. "Then we started hearing that the Williams estate was asking questions, saying, 'Hey, what's going on?' Keith Atkinson, Jett Williams's husband, represents the Williams estate. Well, we were doing a screening at about 9 o'clock at night and we got a call. It was the lawyers from the estate, including Keith Atkinson, saying, 'We hear you're doing a movie about Hank Williams. We want to see it and we want to see it tonight.'"
Thomason and executive producer Benjy Gaither arranged for the projectionist to stay after the 9 p.m. screening. "At 10:30, Keith and Jett and some other people come in to see the film. They sat down front and we sat way in the back. Benjy asked me what I thought was going to happen, and I told him, 'Well, as soon as it's over, they're gonna come over here and serve us papers.' We just sat there and waited, expecting the worse."
As it turned out, Thomason and Gaither didn't need to worry. At the end of the screening, Atkinson and Williams talked for a few minutes and then came to the back of the theater where the filmmakers were waiting for them. "The first thing Jett said was, 'Well, somebody finally got it right.' We really dodged a bullet there, I can tell you."
After that screening, Jett Williams, who was born after her famous father died, became one of the film's biggest supporters. She takes care to tell fans that The Last Ride isn't the typical Hollywood treatment. "If people want to see a cradle-to-grave biopic of Hank Williams, this is not the film for you," says Williams. "This is just the last 72 hours of his life. This is a freeze frame of him at the age of 29."
And it's not a pretty picture. Williams, who mysteriously died during the road trip, was ill, showing the effects of long-term alcohol use, and trying to mend fences -- both professional and personal. He had booked New Year's shows in Ohio and Virginia and hired a young college kid to drive him. Williams's handlers also expected the driver to keep the singer sober and out of trouble. That was an especially difficult task.
"When the film starts, you've the driver and he's called The Boy. In the back seat, you've got a guy and he's called The Man. As things go along, The Boy becomes a man; he gets his first kiss, his first date, his first dance. And The Man becomes a legend. He was already a star, but when he draws that last breath in the back seat of that car, he becomes more than that. He becomes a legend."
Henry Thomas (yes, Elliott from E.T.) plays The Man; Jesse James plays The Boy. Young, inexperienced, and -- worse still -- unfamiliar with popular music of the day, The Boy is completely unaware that his passenger is a country music star. The pair make various stops during the trip, but The Man never identifies himself as Hank Williams, so except for a few friends that he meets along the way, he goes unrecognized. (He does sometimes call himself Mr. Wells, a favorite Williams pseudonym.)
"In 1952, most people didn't know what my dad looked like," says Williams. "My dad had been on television, but you've got to remember, back then most people didn't own a television. The only way you recognized Hank Williams or Bing Crosby or whoever was when they sang. Singers and musicians could move around and nobody knew who they were."
The Williams character never steps on stage or sings in the film; that's been the source of some criticism, but it doesn't bother Williams. "I cannot imagine my dad walking into a little store and seeing a bunch of guys sitting around drinking moonshine and singing, like we see in the film, and him saying, 'Hey, you're pretty good, but let me show you how to do it.' So I don't see where, in this movie, this character was just going to bust out and sing something. It would have been gratuitous. Now I'm hoping that someone will make a movie with my dad singing, him being onstage and all that, but this isn't that movie."
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But just because the Hank Williams character doesn't sing in the movie, that doesn't mean the film doesn't have any music in it. As a matter of fact, it has lots of music. Just none of it sung by Hank Williams. Jett Williams, herself a singer, is among the many artists heard on the film's soundtrack. She performs "The Hank Williams Blues," a song she wrote.
The year 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of Hank Williams's death. "He would have been 90 years old, had he lived," says his daughter. "And his music is still as strong today as it was in 1952. Here's the thing about a Hank Williams song -- you can take away the music and you have poetry. You can take away the words and you have an instrumental.
"People tell me that when they think of my dad, they think about how lonely he was, how sad his life was. I always say, 'Yeah, he was real sad when he wrote "Hey, Good Looking," and "Jambalaya," wasn't he?'"
The Last Ride is playing at the Sundance Cinema, 510 Texas. For information, visit the theater's website or call 713-263-3456. $7.50 to $10.50.