Movie Review – Hank Williams Biopic “I Saw The Light”
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.
I 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.
Even 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)
April 2, 2016 @ 8:26 am
I still haven’t seen the movie and would never pay to see it but from all the reviews I’ve read (including this one) I reckon it really is that bad. I hope marc Abraham is happy with himself for blowing what could potentially be the only real shot at a proper Hank Williams biopic.
April 2, 2016 @ 8:33 am
Great review Trigger. Sounds spot on to everything I have read. I still will see it no matter what, but it’s a bummer that this movie turned out to be such a dud.
April 4, 2016 @ 3:09 pm
People need to start reading critics reviews AFTER they see a movie. I’ve seen. This one twice since its release and enjoyed it alot both times. No one can replace a celebrity when they reenact their lives. The story was vey clear. You don’t all the dirty little details to get the message and Tom did a great job.
April 2, 2016 @ 8:35 am
I have watched the trailer to this movie and in my opinion he does not sound like Hank when he sings nor does he sound like him when he talks. I have had mixed feeling about seeing the movie. After I told my husband that he doesn’t sound like Hank, he told me he would not take me to see it, because he said I will just leave pissed off. I’m really disappointed, I have been waiting for this. In my opinion they failed miserably.
April 2, 2016 @ 8:49 am
Tom Hiddleston does not do a very good job either impersonating, or evoking Hank when he performs on stage. He does a good job acting Hank off the stage. But Hiddleston’s singing is not the problem with this movie, and it shouldn’t be the reason someone decides not to see it. The reason someone should decide to see it is because it’s just a bad movie. One of the reason’s Hiddleston’s singing doesn’t matter is because except for the beginning of the movie, Hiddleston doesn’t really sing in it. The second half of the movie barely has any music at all, not even in the background. You kind of forget this is even a music movie. Much of the promo shows Hiddleston on stage because it’s easy to cut into snippets and use as promotion. But for all intents and purposes, this is not a music movie. It’s a drama that happens to be about a music star.
April 2, 2016 @ 9:16 am
To be fair a reason some might go see it is because Tom is their favorite actor. I’m probably just gonna end up enjoying this movie for what it is when I get a chance to see it.
April 2, 2016 @ 9:01 am
Thanks for the review Trigger, i saw the film last night and have to agree this was such a missed opportunity to tell a great story about Hank for once and truly honor his legacy. For anyone wanting to see this film regardless id wait for DVD, if that.
April 2, 2016 @ 9:15 am
Saw the movie and at 48 I was the youngest in the theater which was half full. Personally I enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t great and I wasn’t there to nit pick either. If any disappointment I have it would be as you mentioned the Williams estate involvement. I thought Tom did okay I wasn’t expecting him to sound like Hank so I wasn’t disappointed. On a personal level I would love to see a Keith Whitley movie.
April 2, 2016 @ 10:56 am
If done properly, a Keith Whitley biopic could be one of the greatest biopics of all time. The man had an incredible life.
April 2, 2016 @ 11:18 am
About 10 years ago David Keith (Officer and a Gentlemen) was going to do a bio but the funding fell through and lawsuits were involved.
April 2, 2016 @ 12:49 pm
The next story about this movie is how it’s a commercial flop. $13 million budget, and it only pulled in $45,000 its first week. Granted, that was a limited release, but even with it’s “wide” release, few theaters are picking up, and the ones that do are barely selling tickets. I saw the film with about 10 people, and I was the youngest as well. It’s because anyone younger is going to be on Rotten Tomatoes or some other site or app, and not even consider it. Only hardcore Hank fans and country music aficionados are going to venture out to see it.
April 2, 2016 @ 1:32 pm
I had to pass several theaters because the local ones weren’t showing it. I am pretty easily entertained but i will say at times the movie kinda reminded me of Dewey Cox Walk Hard. For a guy who wrote “simple” songs the movie failed to show his complicated life and how/why he was such a genius.
April 2, 2016 @ 1:57 pm
I’ve been meaning to watch Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, I heard it was funny and a spoof on music biopics.
April 3, 2016 @ 7:46 am
Parts of the “Walk Hard” movie really pissed me off. Some parts were pretty funny.
April 3, 2016 @ 10:20 am
The movie was in only 5 theaters for the first week.
April 2, 2016 @ 10:02 am
I still want to go see it… but I think I won’t invite any friends to come with me. I don’t want their first exposure to Hank Willimas to be this movie.
April 2, 2016 @ 12:55 pm
I enjoyed the movie even with its shortcomings. Some great acting and time period cinematography and fabulous costuming.. My favorite scene was the interview in New York where Hank explains why people love his music. I wish there were a few more of those moments, but overall the bad reviews left me pleasantly surprised. Audry was amazing like Trigger said and Hank was played with such emotion and vulnerability by Hiddleston, especially in the love scenes. I give it a 6 out of 10, bad accents and all. I encourage everyone to go check it out.
April 2, 2016 @ 2:28 pm
Yes, that interview scene was a good one as well. In some respects it wasn’t the scenes that were bad in this movie, it was the lack of substance stringing them all together.
The HIllbilly Muslim
April 2, 2016 @ 1:50 pm
I guess it may be as bad as “I Walk the Line”. Sorry Joaquin Phoenix does not seem or look or act like nothing like Johnny Cash. At least this dude looks somewhat like Hank. I may still see it since it is based on the biography.
April 2, 2016 @ 2:02 pm
Excellent read, Trigger, thank you. I appreciate the depth of your analysis. Such a waste, with such a huge budget, to have missed the essence of the man.
Sorry to be a pedant, but in your fourth paragraph you use the word ‘concise’ when you mean ‘conscience’! Bloody autocorrect!
April 2, 2016 @ 2:27 pm
This movie will never get out in France, so i think it’s a really bad movie )))))
The only one great “biopic” I know is Vinyl. Even Elvis is perfect in the 7th episode.
April 2, 2016 @ 4:31 pm
So the movie came out on April 1st? Does that mean this movie is a joke? 😛
Ghost of Country Past
April 2, 2016 @ 4:33 pm
Just got back from a showing myself. Your review was spot on Trigger. It’s not quite as bad as the critics have made it out to be, but it still falls way short of what it should/could have been. All of the drug abuse is barely in the film and there’s no heart in any of the material concerning his alcoholism.
Hank’s songs tell the story of his life far better than this film does. At least we still have Walk the Line. Hopefully some kids my age may have chances to see this and decide to look up who Faron Young or Ray Price is and give their music a try.
April 2, 2016 @ 9:15 pm
Saw that the movie is projected to make 800000 in 741 theaters……yikes!
April 3, 2016 @ 2:46 pm
Just saw the movie and although i could nitpick everything like the critics did, i decided to enjoy it in the spirit it was presented. The acting was wonderful, I thought Tom did a fantastic job and his singing was better than i expected, better than Mr Phoenix did as Cash for sure! There was room for improvement to be sure but as a Hank fan, I loved seeing his story on the big screen after waiting for so long! I thought the casting was really great as well, can hardly wait for this on DVD!
April 3, 2016 @ 3:40 pm
Rather than an actual biopic, what I’d really like to see is a film version of David Allan Coe’s “The Ride”.
April 4, 2016 @ 3:12 pm
Well I finally saw this last Saturday. I have to say, as someone who was prepared for the worst I actually found a lot to enjoy. Not a masterpiece or anything close but still, I quite enjoyed it. I think some parts were executed wonderfully such as the interview scene, and also the beginning when he was performing in the bar. I also thought his relationship with Audrey was portrayed appropriately.
I think if you didn’t know much about Hank’s career then you would have definitely been confused at a number of parts. Plus, that ending was devoid of any lasting impact. And I agree, some parts could have totally been cut out. More music would have also helped.
But like I said, not nearly as bad as I thought. In fact, I found it to be good. I understand both sides of the argument on this one though.
April 4, 2016 @ 11:10 pm
Just saw movie wife and I liked it . Myself huge Elvis fan knew some songs from Elvis . So sad Hank died at 29 to write and sing have to be genius . More concert songs would helped wanted to see I am so lonesome I could cry live Elvis said it was sadest song ever written live Aloha concert .
Will look into Hank avid Hank JR you tube .
April 14, 2016 @ 7:00 am
I saw the movie last night in Atlanta. It was as bad as most reviews have said…maybe even worse. Weak plot, horrible dialogue. A disaster.