“Shockingly Bad” Hank Williams Biopic “I Saw The Light” Slammed by Critics Upon Debut
The highly-anticipated Hank Williams biopic I Saw The Light starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank, and Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, or TIFF, Friday, September 11th. And though critics only represent their own opinions and don’t always fall in line with the sentiments of the public at large, the only way to describe the degree disappointment, displeasure, and at times vitriol towards this movie from the select few who were allowed into the screening can only spell one thing: I Saw The Light is a gargantuan letdown.
“It should be impossible to turn this kind of raw material into such an interminable slog, and yet somehow writer and director Marc Abraham … managed to do just that,” writes Consequences of Sound critic Sarah Kurchak. “‘I Saw the Light’ is essentially two hours of Williams wandering around, singing, and being cantankerous while almost all of the major moments in his life happen slightly off screen. It’s not deep enough to be a proper character study, and doesn’t have a strong enough narrative to be a proper story.”
Kurchak concludes, “Perhaps it’s fitting, in some way, to pay tribute to a prolific artist who died before his 30th birthday with a film filled with wasted potential. That would be the only possible way in which this picture would be a success.”
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Writing for HitFix, Gregory Ellwood calls the movie “shockingly bad,” and much more. “We’re not going to beat around the bush here. Despite the worthy efforts of stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, the Hank Williams biopic ‘I Saw The Light’ is a shockingly bad movie. It’s such a disappointment we’re not even sure where to begin … No critic wants to harp on a terrible flick. You could probably write a 100-page thesis paper about how bad “Light” is. If that makes you curious enough there are worse things than watching Hiddleston do his best to wade through this mess. But, that still ignores the larger issue: Hank Williams deserves to have his story told with the same creativity and soul he infused his songs with. ‘I Saw The Light’ is absolutely not that movie.”
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Many of the critic’s concerns with the film have to do with the screenplay. Though it is Colin Escott’s biography of Hank Williams that is the basis for the film, director Marc Abraham is the one credited for the script itself. As Noel Murray says writing for The Playlist, “Abraham the writer lets down Abraham the director, and ultimately lets down his stars … The core weakness of ‘I Saw The Light’ is that Abraham has difficulty connecting all the dots of what turns out to be a frustratingly episodic film.”
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The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wasn’t much nicer, giving I Saw The Light 2 of 5 stars and saying, “Exiting the cinema, the woman next to me said she wished she’d looked up which year Williams died beforehand so she knew how much longer there was to run. Given the drama and heartache of his short story, and the commitment of the man playing him, it takes a rare kind of talent to make a movie about him such a dirge.”
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The music was also a point of criticism. Steve Pond writing for The Wrap observed, “The actor turns out to be a fine, convincing country singer, but that’s not enough. Williams’ voice was high, keening, utterly distinctive and such an integral part of his persona that if you don’t get it right, you’re missing something huge … The music in ‘I Saw the Light,’ which should be the heart of the film, is like a very good cover version of a classic song. It’s enjoyable and it’s sometimes enough, but it’s not the real thing.”
Gregory Ellwood of HitFix also observed, “One of Abraham’s most shocking decisions … was to include so little music in the film itself … outside of a handful of Williams live performances (wonderfully sung by Hiddleston) there is almost no other music in the movie. More shocking is the fact there is rarely realistic ambient sound in scenes that obviously call for it. This is literally the quietest music biopic ever made and it contributes to the lack of energy driving the narrative.”
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Aside from the universal and fairly pointed damnation of the film, the bright spot appears to be the acting of Tom Hiddleston and the other principals of the cast, though it apparently isn’t enough to salvage even one positive review from the two screenings of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
However, critics do not write the final history of films or albums. The public at large also has a say, and film-goers should only use the words of critics as caution and reference, not as the basis for their own opinions. But with the consensus of critical thought surrounding this film, it is patently clear here over three months before the film’s release that it will not achieve what it could have.
Evident from the beginning of the production, I Saw The Light was meant to be director Marc Abraham’s opus. But this also felt like the film’s inherent failing. Marc Abraham is not a director or a screenplay writer; he is a producer—a money man working mostly behind-the-scenes to get films made. Abraham directed only one other film before I Saw The Light. The reason I Saw The Light was able to get green lighted was Abraham’s ability to pull together the money and manpower. But the hubris of placing himself in the position of screenplay writer and director may have been the film’s ultimate undoing.
Marc Abraham looked to make himself the star through this film. Marc Abraham hoped to make Tom Hiddleston a major A-list film actor through this role, and hopefully an Oscar winner. And what seems to be forgotten was that the true star was Hank Williams, and only by bringing Hank’s story alive in the truest form would both Abraham and Hiddleston find the acclaim sought.
What adds insult to injury is this may have been the one shot to get a worthy biopic on one of the most legendary, and most tragic lives in all American music made in cinematic form. In the future, production companies might be gun shy towards approaching the material. The resurgence in interest I Walk The Line caused for Johnny Cash, the similar excitement for bluegrass caused by O’ Brother Where Art Thou, or even the recent biopic Straight Outta Compton shows the potential film can have to re-awaken culture to previous and important legacies in American music.
But as Hank Williams III—a staunch critic of the film since it was first announced—said when Saving Country Music interviewed him in September of 2014, “But I will say, with or without this movie, Hank Williams’ music is still going to do that … No matter, his music is going to be timeless, and movies come and go. At the end of the day, his music and what he did is going to outlast the movie, and be passed on for generations. That is why he is as special as he is.“
See The First Clip from Hank Williams Biopic Movie “I Saw The Light”
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I Saw The Light will be released nationwide on November 27th. Saving Country Music is hoping to screen the film at the Austin Film Festival in October.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
If the reviews are right (which is generally only about a 50/50 shot), it sounds like the issue here is the writing and the people who said Hiddleston can’t play Hank should thank him for making it less terrible.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:12 pm
As a critic, I agree you can’t go off the opinions of critics and reviews alone. However when you have this much consensus in so many reviews, and pretty much universal panning of the film as not just bad, but disrespectful to the material, it’s hard to not listen and take it with a measure of weight.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:16 pm
The other thing I’d like to point out is the type of honesty and criticism we see in these movie reviews, and compare them to the reviews we’re used to seeing for country albums by the mainstream press. If you said these types of things about country music, you would be universally black-balled as a critic and lose your job, even if the criticism was warranted. That is why country music is in the state it is today.
September 14, 2015 @ 5:49 pm
Country music is in the state it is today because the mainstream press has been insufficiently critical of country albums? Really?
September 14, 2015 @ 6:48 pm
I’m obviously not saying that this is the sole cause, or even a significant cause. But I do think the lack of honest criticism, and the prevalence of “promotion through media” has certainly contributed.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:18 pm
“it sounds like the issue here is the writing”
Haven’t you heard, movies must evolve!
September 13, 2015 @ 6:53 pm
Live in the Toronto area , saw the film at TIFF , the critics are right….it was absolutely terrible…its like no one on the film had any idea who this man was and his place in history…simply dreadful
September 13, 2015 @ 5:06 pm
Through all the concerns about Tom Hiddleston and his voice, my biggest concern from the very beginning was the involvement of Marc Abraham and how he had so little experience, but so much control on what would be the eventual outcome of this film. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I thought it was pretty clear Abraham was “I Saw The Light’s fatal flaw, and I think some people should ask some serious questions of how such an important film was placed in his hands.
I’m hoping to walk into a theater next month and watch this film for myself, and I will do everything in my power to wipe all of this from my mind and give it my own unbiased and honest assessment. But I’ve never seen these types of reviews for what was supposed to be an Oscar-contending film.
Such a missed opportunity.
September 14, 2015 @ 5:57 pm
I’m afraid you’re mistaken. Mark Abraham is from the South (I think; he went to Virginia anyway) so there’s no way he can be responsible.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:24 pm
Uhoh! I looked at the RT score and out of 8 critics it only had one fresh. Not a good sign.
Now my big worry is how this is going to impact the Jones film. Studios aren’t going to want to put money in that project if this film doesn’t preform at the box office.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:20 pm
I definitely think this could affect other biopics, and it may be another quarter century before someone else tries to get the life of Hank Williams right. Even though “I Saw The Light” is going to have full distribution through Sony, I see it having a hard time getting into certain theaters with reviews like this.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:48 pm
That’s even worse than Fant4stic, the movie that turned ME into an emo hacker. Or so they say. I boycotted it. The difference is, I PRAYED Fant4stic would fail so they would have no choice but to sell the rights back to Marvel or lose even more money, and I could hopefully get a proper portrayal in an Avergers universe movie. I was overjoyed when God answered those prayers. I wanted I Saw the Light to succeed though, because I love Hank Williams and REAL country music, and I had faith in Tom Hiddleston. Loki is much more upset than I am. He won’t stop blowin’ up my… never mind. Thanks a lot Abraham!
September 13, 2015 @ 5:26 pm
Yeah, it’s really too bad. We were excited for the movie. Great point about Abraham being his own star. He completely forgot to make a movie in the process it sounds.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:35 pm
Maybe the movie needed an English director (sarcasm intended). I am still looking forward to seeing it though and watching the actors performances.
September 13, 2015 @ 5:35 pm
“Though it is Colin Escott”™s biography of Hank Williams that is the basis for the film, director Marc Abraham is the one credited for the script itself.” Therein lies the problem in my opinion. That book was sooooo freaking boring. Don’t know why you’d even attempt to base a screenplay off of it. For any Hank Snr fans out there, I don’t reckon you can you can go past the doco ‘Hank Williams Honky Tonk Blues’:
September 13, 2015 @ 5:46 pm
This stinks, I was hoping for a homerun here, although I thought the review by thewrap.com wasn’t too bad. “it rose above the standard biopic movies mostly thanks to a towering lead performance by Tom Hiddleston.”
I have to admit, when I found out Marc Abraham was directing I too was concerned since he was a first time director. Plus there were signs during production that made me question things. I remember at one point there was a call for extras that asked them to bring their own 40’s/50’s era clothes. It just kind of seemed low budget. Plus the fact they filmed it mostly in Louisiana gave me pause, since I would have hoped they’d shoot some scenes actually at the Ryman.
Either way the scene that was released last week looked really good I thought in terms of production and polish. I know its unlikely but maybe it didn’t resonate with this particular group of critics for some reason. I’m still going to see it, and hopefully like someone said above this won’t have a major negative impact on the Jones bio-pic if this does bomb.
It can’t be any worse than The Last Ride right?
September 13, 2015 @ 6:23 pm
Loki is not pleased that the actor who brought him to life was involved in this tragedy. Loki longs to wreak horrible vengeance on your world for this atrocity. Luckily, I am the only one who is able to even communicate with your world, so you don’t have to worry about that.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:47 pm
XD Omg! Please never stop doing entertaining posts such as these! Hahahahaha
So I take it Loki is a fan of country? Or just interested in seeing his actor do other stuff?
September 13, 2015 @ 7:47 pm
Both. All of us supervillains are fans of real country, while all the heroes are fans of pop country. In this regard, you could say our roles are reversed. During the Avengers’ latest battle against Ultron, Iron Man started blaring “This Is How We Roll” out of his armor’s built in speakers, and Ultron exploded instantaneously. Apparently, as a red-blooded ‘Merican, Captain America puts all Bro-Country songs on the same level as “Star Spangled Banner.”
September 14, 2015 @ 3:07 pm
Captain Murica is undoubtedly a hardcore Brantley Gilbert fan.
John Wayne Twitty
September 13, 2015 @ 6:34 pm
You have to consider the fact that critics think Sam Hunt is a great country singer.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:34 pm
Another tragedy on 9/11.
September 14, 2015 @ 5:11 am
Jet fuel can’t melt country beams…or something like that…
September 13, 2015 @ 6:40 pm
Maybe there are some stories that just can’t be made into a successful film. The subject matter is so broad and no one, let alone an English actor, will be able to sing as well as Hank Williams.
September 13, 2015 @ 6:44 pm
Using Escott’s book as a source was the first, and possibly fatal, mistake.
September 13, 2015 @ 7:19 pm
Well, that’s disappointing.
September 13, 2015 @ 7:28 pm
Ouch. I’d been really looking forward to this one, too…
Over the weekend, I found the Hollywood Reporter review — not nearly as harsh as the ones you quoted here, but these descriptions were enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the film considerably:
“…[T]he bulk of the film involves his tried-and-tested relationship with Audrey, depicted at times as a sort of Yoko Ono who could have destroyed his career.
“There are several gags involving Audrey”™s imperfect (though by no means unbearable) singing voice, which she forced upon Williams and his band despite his casually aggressive protestations. And there are lots of scenes devoted to the couple”™s constant, increasingly violent spats (one involving a loaded gun), with the two of them going at it like Ralph and Alice in ‘The Honeymooners,’ one-liners included. …
“Yet when it comes to the music, there”™s not much to learn here. Sure, the songs were catchy as can be, but why did Williams become such a star in the postwar era, helping bring country to the mainstream? And who were the performers ”“ whether bluesmen or ‘hillbilly’ singers ”“ that he drew from to create his own work? (Apparently Williams didn’t know how to read music, but that fact is not mentioned either.)
“Rather than showing him as a major artist who came along during a transitional period in musical history, Light is much more interested in revealing his failed love affairs, first to Audrey and then to a string of women, ending with his last wife, Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson). And while the film tries to structure itself around that aspect of Williams”™s life, it starts churning in circles as his relationships all turn sour and he hits the bottle ”“ and needle ”“ so hard he”™ll never make it out alive.
“What”™s left are the handful of scenes where Hiddleston is simply allowed to sing, making one long for a full concert tribute instead of a biopic with lots of dramatic filler.”
September 13, 2015 @ 7:32 pm
From the “great” preview I saw I thought it looks absolutely horrid and thought he sounded nothing like Hank. So sad. I agree, this mayve been the last chance to make such a film. :/
September 13, 2015 @ 7:37 pm
I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to be the one to say it.
September 13, 2015 @ 7:44 pm
I like the idea of his lifestyle overruling his music, because it did not only during his rise but in the very final fashion that takes too many great musicians.
September 14, 2015 @ 2:25 am
I never read movie reviews until after I’ve seen the movie myself. I like to form my own opinion without being biased by something I’ve read previously. However, most of the time when critics slam a movie, I tend to really enjoy the movie.
September 14, 2015 @ 7:21 am
Disappointed. However, I’ve read 9 reviews so far and while all hate what Abraham has done, they all praise Hiddleston. Not only do they say he was OK, they’re all raving he was great. So perhaps all the raised voices about him were not entirely justified? I mean if the director/writer is the issue, not even a mixture of Hank III and Matthew McConaughey could have saved it.
September 14, 2015 @ 8:49 am
Disappointing. I’ll hold out hope that the critics are wrong. But it’s still disappointing.
September 14, 2015 @ 10:26 am
If you don’t like the movie, you can always put some of my ‘music’ on.
You’ll go straight back to the movie, I promise.
September 16, 2015 @ 1:13 pm
Hank Willams and his music are immortal. For anyone to portray Hank and his life are facing a tall order. Others(actors), and films have failed miserably. For anyone to attempt a remake of this tragic figure in the form of a movie is up against insurmountable odds. Regardless of the critics and their poor reviews, I will still see the movie, only because I love Hank and his music. His Life is his Music..His Music is his Life! If one is disappointed in the movie, purchase his music and relive his life experiences through his songs!!
David Allan Coe’s Tax Problem; Chris Stapleton’s Tiny Desk Concert; Americana Week in Nashville | Country California
September 17, 2015 @ 10:30 am
[…] Director Marc Abraham”™s Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, is not getting great reviews. […]
September 20, 2015 @ 8:52 pm
Since this was published, there have been quite a few more positive reviews for the movie. Folks who are less interested in showing off how educated about the cinema they are, and more interested in having a good time at a movie. The.review does a good job of explaining why critics at TIFF were probably not the best first audience for a film like this.
September 20, 2015 @ 9:07 pm
Then there’s also this one.
September 23, 2015 @ 6:38 pm
I’m glad I dropped in to realize I don’t have to bother watching this drivel. I was excited but skeptical.
I wasted my time on the Johnny Cash movie, which I thought was crap. I know some of you will disagree with that.
Thanks for saving me some time.
If they ever do a George or Waylon movie, they gotta do it right.
September 29, 2015 @ 4:27 am
Holly Williams Weighs In on Hank Williams Biopic ‘I Saw the Light’
Singer-songwriter reacts to an early screening of the film, starring Tom Hiddleston as her late grandfather
By Will Hodge September 28, 2015
When asked if she had seen the recent trailer for I Saw The Light, the upcoming Hank Williams, Sr. biopic starring English actor Tom Hiddleston, Williams one-upped the inquiry by divulging that she had actually seen the entire film the previous week. “I’m personally very happy with it,” she reports. “The film’s producer, Marc Abraham, is a friend and we talked with him throughout the entire process.”
Williams admits she was initially a bit skeptical about the casting choice of the London-born Hiddleston to play her Alabama-born grandfather. But after viewing the completed film, she was ready to sing a different tune. “Tom really put his whole heart and soul into it. He worked so hard to embody everything about Hank, all of the nuances and who Hank really was. Tom put all his passion into his performance,” she says.
Hiddleston wasn’t the only I Saw The Light thespian for whom Williams had high praise: “Elizabeth Olsen, who played Hank’s wife Audrey, was really amazing as well. I’m incredibly happy with the whole thing. I thought it was brilliant.”