In the new film “I Saw the Light,” a surly Hank Williams, played by Tom Hiddleston, grudgingly consents to an interview with a New York City newspaper reporter. The writer asks Williams how he explains his popularity.
“Everybody has a little darkness in them,” Williams replies, between sips of whiskey. “I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame.” He adds: “I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.”
More than 60 years after his death at the age of 29, Williams — who has been called “the Hillbilly Shakespeare” for the striking imagery of his songs — apparently still holds that kind of power over listeners, and “I Saw the Light,” scheduled to be released on Friday, March 25, is only the latest manifestation of his legacy.
Most obvious is his perpetual presence in country music. In his brief career, he had more than 30 Top 10 country hits, including the standards “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Over the years, his name has been invoked as the embodiment of artistic integrity (“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” by Waylon Jennings) and as a symbol of self-destructive living (“If I get stoned and play all night long, it’s a family tradition,” sang his son, Hank Williams Jr.). One way or another, it seems that he shows up somewhere on nearly every country record.
The impact of Williams’s music, though, extends far beyond Nashville. In 1991, Bob Dylan said, “To me, Hank Williams is still the best songwriter,” while Bruce Springsteen, in his 2012 keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference, described how he had once “lived on” the music of Hank Williams, with its “beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth.” Keith Richards, Beck and Johnny Cash all played on the Grammy-winning tribute album “Timeless” (2001), and for “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams” (2011), Jack White, Norah Jones and other artists set unrecorded Williams lyrics to new melodies they composed.
More surprising, though, is the frequency of stories about Hank Williams on the screen. The first biopic about him was “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in 1964, starring George Hamilton (the role had initially been offered to Elvis Presley). In the late 1970s, Warner Bros. commissioned a Williams screenplay from Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”). Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson were considered for the role, but the script was so dark that Williams’s publishing company refused to allow his songs to be used.
The 2005 Canadian film “Hank Williams First Nation” tells the story of an elderly Cree tribesman who travels to Nashville to determine whether Williams, his hero, is still alive. In 2012, “The Last Ride” re-enacted Williams’s final road trip, when he died in the back seat of a limousine en route to a 1953 New Year’s performance in West Virginia.
Williams’s music has been a defining element of other movies. Most of the score for Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” (1971) was made up of Williams recordings, while Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012) included six of his songs.
(There have also been stage efforts: The acclaimed 1977 play “Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave” is a fictional account of the concert he was traveling to when he died. In 2003, Jason Petty won an Obie award for his performance in the Off Broadway musical “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.”)
Given this constant stream of Hank Williams projects, why did the writer-director Marc Abraham feel compelled to make “I Saw the Light”? In a telephone interview, Mr. Abraham (better known as a producer whose credits include “Children of Men” and “Bring It On”) indicated that he felt there were still aspects of the story that needed to be explored, explaining that he especially wanted to concentrate on the tempestuous relationship between the singer and his first wife, Audrey (played by Elizabeth Olsen).
“That was the fire,” he said. “That’s where the songs come from.”
Mr. Abraham noted that everything from Hank Williams’s name and “snakelike vibe” to his defiant independence contribute to his long-lasting coolness. “He spit in the eye of the right guys — he got kicked off the Grand Ole Opry,” he said. “He wanted to do it his way and he prevailed. For any young stud, that’s kind of aspirational.”
For the British Mr. Hiddleston (Loki in the “Thor” movies), the contradictions in Williams’s writing and personality help explain the continuing allure of his music. “There’s an interesting tension between his charisma and masculinity and the vulnerability in his songs,” he said by phone, “it’s the tension in the American man, perhaps.”
Noting that Williams became popular in 1947, he continued: “It was right after the war, which was not an easy time for the American man to admit that he was so lonesome he could cry. But Hank Williams had the courage to stand up and sing it.”
It was that specific sense of time and place that inspired Mr. Bogdanovich to devote so much of the soundtrack to Hank Williams in “The Last Picture Show,” which is set in Texas in the early 1950s. “The sound that he made, the subject matter, the whole thing seemed to speak of that moment, and it created an extraordinary mood,” he said by phone.
“His singing was heartbreaking but not operatic,” he continued, citing “Why Don’t You Love Me,” which opens and closes his movie. “He sang sad songs, but he didn’t sing them tragically. He wasn’t trying to be sweet.”
The country star Tim McGraw, who dropped Hank Williams’s name in no less than three songs on his most recent album, “Damn Country Music,” credits Williams’s writing and voice for his influence but considers his persona important as well.
“He was bigger than life, wide-open, genuine,” Mr. McGraw wrote in an email. “There was an element of vulnerability, but there was also dangerousness, a gleam in the eye. I’ve always thought of him as the first real rock star.”
Of course, Hank Williams was also a prototype for the live fast-die young archetype familiar through tragic stars from James Dean and Marilyn Monroe to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Frozen forever at the peak of his fame, Williams’s myth was further cemented by the eerie fact that his song “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” reached No. 1 within days of his death.
“There are people who, whether born with it or develop over time, live without a safety net,” Mr. Hiddleston said. “They commit to living in an unconventional way in which other people fear to live. A certain personality seems to have one less layer of skin, don’t have a defense mechanism, and that’s part of why they’re so captivating.”
Ultimately, though, it’s the brilliance of his work, rather than his image, that keeps Hank Williams forever relevant. Mr. Hiddleston (who worked closely with the country singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell to sing, rather than lip-sync, Williams’s songs) first discovered Williams by way of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, as he explored the roots of their music.
“Hank is part of the fabric of America,” he said. “That’s what folk music does — it represents something pure and honest about the traditions of the culture. That’s what Hank Williams has become.”