Movie Review – Hank Williams Biopic “I Saw The Light”

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Saving Country Music posted a total of 27 articles about I Saw The Light before it’s release. This will make #28. The reason such dedicated interest was shown to the film was because of the potential it carried for exposing the music and the legacy of Hank Williams to an entirely new generation, and to preserve and promote his legacy for generations to come. Successful biopics for Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and other music stars in and out of country music have in many cases been at the crux of a revitalization of their careers and legacies in popular culture. Many attempts had been made previously to encapsulate portions of Hank’s life in film, but none that looked so promising, with a big budget production, the blessing of the Williams estate and Sony ATV for use of the songs, and a cast that was creating Oscar buzz even before the film had wrapped shooting.

The other reason such attention was paid to the film was because the early reviews were so horrible, and the roll out so disjointed, these things became stories all to themselves. Delaying the release from late 2015 to April of 2016 only seemed to extend the torture for Hank Williams fans who were hoping for something enjoyable to watch, and something they could use to share their love for Hank Williams with others, whether it won any Oscars or not.

But the failure of I Saw The Light, which was preordained well before its wide release to the public on Friday April 1st, is not just the story of one failed production. With the money put behind this film, with the actors assigned to the roles, with the licensing of Colin Escott’s definitive biography of Hank for use as the basis for the screenplay, and getting Sony ATV on board, it means that not only do we still not have a definitive movie about the life of Hank Williams, but that we may never have one. It’s very doubtful anyone will want to touch another Hank Williams movie project, at least not anytime soon, and they won’t be able to call upon Colin Escott’s definitive book as the basis for the story since the right’s have already been sold. Basically, the failure of I Saw The Light was a colossal failure of the Hank Williams estate and all participating parties to preserve the Hank Williams legacy in film form. One of the most compelling and important stories in not just country music, but American culture, will remain untold in the cinematic space possibly for our lifetimes.

The reviews for I Saw The Light were so bad, and so profuse, it’s almost impossible for anyone to walk into a theater with an open mind. But it’s still the charge on any movie goer to put all of those concerns aside, and draw your own conclusions. Frankly, from having read so many bad reviews, I thought I Saw The Light was better than what I was expecting, which I was surprised by. I thought that the movie had numerous moments that were executed with brilliance, depth, honor, and a scope that did the indomitable legacy of Hank Williams justice. And though ultimately the consensus of critics was correct, and in good conscience I could never assign this film a passing grade, believe it or not, it is still something I would recommend every Hank Williams fan see, if only for a few solid glimpses into the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s character, and because it’s likely you may never get a chance to see a similar cinematic effort on Hank Williams again.

hank-williams-tom-hiddleston-i-saw-the-lightI Saw The Light is not a bad movie in the sense that the production is poor, the acting is bad, or there’s canned moments that make you groan, or that the screenplay veers too far from the story to be believable. It’s just plain boring. Certain individual scenes peppered throughout the presentation are engaging, but there’s not nearly enough cohesiveness in the story and so many critical moments are left out to where the whole thing just falls apart by the end.

Though Colin Escott’s biography on Hank Williams is known as one of the best music biographies out there, basing a screenplay on it may have ultimately been this film’s demise. It is a biography, not a biopic screenplay, and Marc Abraham, who also directed and produced the film, did not have the experience to know how to translate one to the other. Too much attention was paid in the film to trying to squeeze in details or side stories from Hank’s life that didn’t have any purpose to creating a cinematic insight into who Hank Williams was, why people should care about him, or lend to a story arc.

The people who may enjoy this movie the most might be those who’ve read the biography before. In fact during some moments in the film, intimate and detailed knowledge of Hank’s past is essential to understanding the moment, or the dialogue. Marc Abraham did not make a movie to where someone who had never heard of Hank Williams would watch it and become enthralled in who Hank was, and what his music meant. He made a film that was almost like a documentary-style depiction of Hank’s life, only without the necessary narrative of a documentary to tie it all together.

For example, Hank Williams had a cousin named Marie that he potentially bore an illegitimate child with named Louis “Butch” Fitzgerald. There’s a scene from I Saw The Light where Hank is flirting with a girl named “Marie” on the porch of his mother’s home before his mother breaks them up. But unless you have read that specific passage in the Hank biography about Hank’s cousin Marie and their potential love affair, you would have no clue why the interaction in the movie was significant.

At the same time, important places, critical events, and large swaths of the Hank Williams timeline are left out completely, with few signifyers help you keep your place. Though Hank spends significant time in Louisiana singing for The Louisiana Hayride, you never see him on the Hayride stage itself. Though members of Hank’s band, especially Don Helms, drift in and out of the story, they’re so poorly introduced, you don’t ever feel like you know who they are, let alone grow curious of their stories. Aside from Hank, his wife and love interests, and maybe Fred Rose, the rest of the characters are about as important as props, even the ones with significant speaking parts.

Though the cinematography and settings do feel very true to the time period and are well done, production inconsistencies and foibles that in a better film may be overlooked become magnified with the weak script. As an example, at times footage that was supposed to be taken from consumer-grade 8mm cameras is spliced into the film as reconstructed archival footage. But all of this footage is in color, when it truth it would have been in black and white. But when they also use footage throughout the film of what is supposed to be a Fred Rose interview after Hank’s death, they do choose to use a sepia color scheme. There’s also a couple of places where the camera focus jumps abruptly forward or back from the subject—something that would normally be edited out of most big budget productions.

i-saw-the-light-movieEven the worst reviews for I Saw The Light have complimented the acting. Though it can be easy when you’re ripping apart a film to spare the actors because they’re the ones you may want to interview in the future, or find more personally endearing than behind-the-scenes guys, it is truly fair to call I Saw The Light well-acted. Tom Hiddleston would not win an Oscar for his role even if the script wasn’t a flop, but he does a fine job under difficult circumstances to evoke the ghost of Hank as best he can. His singing is not really even close to Hank’s, and his movements in front of the microphone—swaying side to side in his hips as opposed to how Hank dipped from his knees—really makes it hard to see Hiddleston for Hank when he’s on stage. But any movie goer is going to be asked to suspend disbelief to some extent, and Hiddleston’s Hank impersonation is not the problem with this film, though it’s certainly not an asset either.

Overall, the Southern accents and authenticity of the dialog is more minus than plus for I Saw The Light. Even Hiddleston seems to drift in and out of a poorly executed Southern accent, while other characters don’t even seem to have the heart to try, and excessive cuss words and other dialogue felt anachronistic. The exception to the accent issues is Elizabeth Olsen who plays Hank’s wife Audrey. If you’re looking for someone who got screwed out of an Oscar for this film being so bad, it was her. From the emotional textures she brings, to a truly developed accent and set of mannerisms that really did her character justice, she was one of the compelling elements in an otherwise lackluster film.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston almost pull this film together in the first portion. A spine-chilling opening scene where you see Hank singing a capella on a bar stool while surrounded by smoke, intimate moments where Audrey and Hank are laying in bed and sharing secrets and stories in well-developed dialogue, an emotional plea by Hank for Audrey to take him back on a farmhouse porch right before he leaves Alabama to work for the Louisiana Hayride—as individual scenes, especially at the beginning of the film, they give you hope the critics had it all wrong. There’s a scene where Hank is in Hollywood, and a film executive asks him to take his hat off and he refuses. If the timing and tension of that scene could have been translated into the rest of the film, it may have had a chance.

But Hank’s back ailments and addiction, which should be the glue of this story, are just given passing glances, or are over-dramaticized. You don’t feel the demons boiling under his skin, or the good ol’ boy arrogance and swagger that lent to Hank becoming a superstar, and a handful. His firing from the Opry is a footnote in the film, and the story of his legendary “last ride” is fully omitted, when it could be, and arguably should be the entirety of the last third or at least quarter of the film.

Yet there’s no abridging of Hank’s love interests, or multiple scenes that don’t seem important to the plot at all. All the concern about Tom Hiddleston performing Hank songs, but the music of the film is an afterthought at best. Long periods go by where there’s no music at all. And then Hank (Hiddleston) will sing a tune, and you are almost shocked to hear music.

There is never an opportunity to become emotionally invested in anyone in this film, and as much as it struggles throughout to hold your attention, the ending is outright criminal. Though the final scene itself is fine, the film is so rushed to get there, and so disrespectful of the actual story, even if the rest of the film had been fine, which it may be to some viewers, the abruptness of the ending ruins the entire experience, and is the ultimate reason for the terrible reviews, and the failure of this film.

Hank never left a crowd wanting, and he knew it wasn’t just the words, but the feeling, the story, the emotion set to music that made listening to him a magical experience. This was the legacy that Hank’s life has imparted to generations. And it’s what was completely lost in the production and writing of I Saw The Light.

1 1/2 of 2 Guns Down (3/10)