“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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hank-williams-tom-hiddleston-i-saw-the-lightWriting 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.

tom-hiddleston-hank-williams-i-saw-the-lightHowever, 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 thatNo 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.

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