I Saw the Light just isn’t very interesting”

by Steve Pulaski

As a die-hard Hank Williams fan, introduced to the country music legend by my grandfather several years ago through his old vinyl records, newly released/remastered CD collections, and unique and expensive memorabilia, two things will forever both me: the lack of real respect and acknowledgment of the crooner by the mainstream and the fact that the last two films made about the country singer have failed to impress on virtually every level.

The last Hank Williams film we got was “The Last Ride,” concerning Hank’s death in the backseat of Charles Carr’s Cadillac on his way to a New Year’s Day show. That film was an unusual offender, for starters because the film never showed Hank Williams singing nor did it even mention the name “Hank Williams” at any point in the film. Call it minimalism, call it impressionism, I simply call it disrespectful and hugely misguided filmmaking. This is one of the founders of the golden age of country music and this is the thanks he gets?

“I Saw the Light” does indeed showcase a singing Hank Williams, and, to my surprise, actually has his name mentioned many times throughout its two-hour runtime. However, this is a horribly unfocused film, lacking a thesis and direction, with a one-sided lead performance by Tom Hiddleston and a story that, while wisely choosing to highlight the manic depressive/heavy-drinking side of the singer, neglects to emphasize why Hank Williams is a name worth remembering today.

I Saw the Light
Directed by
Marc Abraham
Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Maddie Hasson
Release Date
25 Mar 2016
Steve’s Grade: D

The film is told as a traditional biopic, highlighting Williams’ marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) early in his life, who became his singing partner on many occasions, the birth of his son Hank Williams, Jr., and his tooth-and-nail fight to perform and get recognized by the Grand Ole Opry. In addition, we see Hank’s old radio show he did with his group “The Drifting Cowboys,” as well as his numerous chart-topping hits, such as the classic “Move It on Over” and the amiable “Hey Good Lookin’,” performed by Hiddleston himself. Right off the bat, Hiddleston proves he can handle the dramatic side of Williams quite well. He can play the emotionally damaged and unstable side of the singer with great conviction, especially during the last three years of his life, when he really goes off the deep end and begins drinking and smoking heavier than ever.

But when it comes to singing and replicating the vocal chops of Hank, Hiddleston simply cannot come close, and to be fair, I don’t know of a single soul who could’ve, save for Hank’s grandson, Hank Williams III. Hank’s music was so full of vocal nuances that made his music click: his yodeling, his ability to sing in several different octaves, often during the same song, and his uniquely southern drawl worked to make his music distinct and passionate. No matter how hard Hiddleston tries, coming fairly close when he performs at the Opry, he simply doesn’t have the vocal prose to hold a candlestick to the country legend.

This isn’t as catastrophic as it would’ve been if Marc Abraham had structured “I Saw the Light” like “Walk the Line,” the Johnny Cash biopic, which was heavily centered on Cash’s singing and musical talents, yet it’s still an evident problem. The grave failure here, however, still rests on Abraham for not finding a key theme or flow from the story, and as a result, the film leaps and bounces from one scene to another, in vignette style, making for a discombobulated movie experience. The way time passes in this film is an affront to film logic (one moment Audrey is pregnant and she’s literally in the delivery room the next scene).

With all of that, largely because of a lack of focus, “I Saw the Light” just isn’t very interesting, despite a performance by Hiddleston that is clearly trying to make the deeper, lesser-seen personality of Hank Williams recognized by more people. For a name so powerful, for a soul so layered and complex, and for a man who made music that made people who were never cheated on or heartsick in their life feel as if they were, “I Saw the Light” doesn’t come close to affirming Hank William’s wonderful legacy and that, maybe after all, is the biggest offense this film commits.