Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Reel Review: I SAW THE LIGHT

From Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash, from NWA to Dewey Cox…the rock n’ roll biopic has become a genre of its own over the decades, with each one earning success thanks to a well-proven formula of storytelling; a formula of humble beginnings, a meteoric rise, a tragic fall, and topped off with a rise from the ashes. For director Marc Abraham and his Hank Williams biopic I SAW THE LIGHT, that old formula didn’t seem to be good enough.

Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston) rises to fame in the late 1940’s despite his dependencies on drugs and booze, and struggles to maintain his career along with his marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen).

I SAW THE LIGHT is a film which seems to exist to prove a point; that the decades-old formula of telling the story of a famed musician isn’t the only way to go. Instead of starting Hank’s story at the beginning, director and writer Marc Abraham instead chooses to focus on a specific period in the man’s life; starting when Hank Williams was just starting to become famous until his untimely death at age 29. There are roughly six years of ups and downs explored here, with Williams earning his wealth and chasing a goal of performing in the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a noble effort, but I SAW THE LIGHT focuses too much on its current happenings and doesn’t seem interested in looking at what made Hank…Hank. His desire to play at the Opry (and stay there) is expressed over and over again, but other than a short line of dialogue early in the film, there is no reason to know why exactly it is so important to him. With that crucial element missing I SAW THE LIGHT operates as a very shallow film.

Marc Abraham also struggles with the narrative structure. Scenes do not transition very well into each other; we go from one big dramatic event after another which has zero impact on the very next scene, and while it’s possible Abraham is letting us fill in the gaps by ourselves, chunks of the film seem to be missing. There are also a bunch of what appears to be interviews being filmed with Hank’s friends to tell us about things that were happening (possibly after his death), but it feels lazy as in too much telling and not enough showing.

There is still a lot to hang a ten-gallon hat on in I SAW THE LIGHT. Tom Hiddleston is marvelous in the role and even looks like Hank time and time again. Hiddleston does his own singing, and the performance scenes are spectacular; with the highlight being an a cappella version of Cold, Cold Heart…sung by Hiddleston…which is chilling. Abraham shoots a beautiful looking film, and the tone of the era is captured perfectly.

Tom Hiddleston nails the musical performances  and the off-stage drama. Elizabeth Olsen as his on-again, off-again wife is also excellent, and Bradley Whitford turns in a nice supporting role. Cherry Jones nearly steals the show as Williams’ overbearing mom.

The film ends with Hank Williams’ way-too-young passing, and it’s a dramatic moment which feels light because the build-up towards it is devoid of any urgency or life. It’s a ho-hum finale simply because the last 30 minutes are a snore. I SAW THE LIGHT is worth a peek thanks to a wonderful performance by Tom Hiddleston, but suffers from clumsy storytelling and an apparent want to do things differently by the director. Formulas work for a reason.



  1. Interested in seeing this one, and on the big screen. I'm not your typical CW fan. But Williams was in a class all his own and most of the songs he wrote translate well into "non-country" presentations. It will also be interesting to compare this flick with the original movie on William's life "Your Cheating Heart," which starred George Hamilton (1964).


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