I Saw the Light, the story of the legendary country western singer Hank Williams, who in his brief life created one of the greatest bodies of work in American music. The film chronicles his meteoric rise to fame and its ultimately tragic effect on his health and personal life.
Originally set for theatrical release in late 2015 so it would be considered during awards season, Sony bumped 'I Saw the Light' to 2016. The film arrived with little fanfare...and a whole lot of negative reviews from critics, who admired star Tom Hiddleston's performance as Hank Williams, but felt the movie just ticked off the typical biopic boxes and didn't provide any real insight or introspection into who Hank Williams was.
I can't argue with that general reaction, but I can tell you that I nevertheless enjoyed 'I Saw the Light'. Did I come away from the movie knowing much more about Hank Williams than I already did? No, not really. Did I enjoy spending two hours with the character? Yes, I sure did...despite his struggles with addiction that would lead to his young death. The reason the movie works as well as it does is completely because of Tom Hiddleston, who may not look exactly like Williams (although they both have a tall, lanky frame), but he captures the essence of him – in no small part because Hiddleston actually performs every note of every song you'll hear in 'I Saw the Light', and it's not post-production dubbing either. Add that to his already impressive acting, and it's one of the best performances you'll see in a movie this year – although, thanks to the studio dumping it into theaters in April – it's doubtful Hiddleston will be recognized or remembered when this year's best performances are mentioned, and that's a shame.
Despite the fact that Hank Williams only lived until the age of 29, this biopic surprises by beginning his story when Williams was already starting to make a name for himself, and doesn't cover any of his childhood or formative years. The first scene of the movie has Williams getting married to his first wife, Audrey Sheppard (played by Elizabeth Olsen – yes, I too immediately made the Loki and Scarlet Witch connection), who would almost immediately take on the task of managing his career from that point forward – a job that was previously handled by Williams' mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). At this point in his career, Williams was already hosting a radio show – and runs into significant difficulties with radio management and his back-up singers when he insists on letting his far-less-talented wife sing on the air.
But Hank's real desire is to perform on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, which – like a comedian performing on 'The Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson in the 1980s – was pretty much how any country music performer obtained nationwide acclaim back during Williams' day (the Opry still conducts weekly broadcasts, but it doesn't nearly have the star-making influence that it once did). He's rejected at first, and despite a string of hit songs not asked to perform at the Opry until one of his releases, 'Lovesick Blues' (ironically a song that Williams' re-recorded a version of and didn't write himself) stayed on the top of the Billboard charts for over four months. By the time Williams does sing at the Opry in 1949, he's already a star. After he sings there, he's a superstar.
Of course, what makes Williams' story so tragic is the addictions that would lead to his early death – primarily alcohol. While Director Marc Abraham's movie never really pinpoints the reasons behind Hank's personality (he's also got a pill problem as well as a commitment problem...often in the arms of another when he's out on the road), chances are much of his substance abuse was due to the fact that Williams had chronic back issues through his life and found out he actually had spina bifida, to which, as you can imagine, there weren't the greatest of treatments or answers for in the 1940s and early '50s.
'I Saw the Light's biggest problem is never really knowing what made Hank Williams tick, and that's probably because no one seemed to understand the real person that well. Abraham wants his movie to be as accurate as it can be, without allowing a speculative narrative to be part of his story. What we're left with is a portrayal of a man who we can only understand through the lyrics of his songs...and what great lyrics they are. In his short career, Williams wrote 30 hit songs with eight of them reaching the top of the Billboard list (after his death, five more of his songs would be released, with three of those reaching No. 1). It's an amazing legacy in such a short amount of time, and most viewers watching this movie will probably realize that they know (and perhaps can sing by heart) every single song that is performed.
So while 'I Saw the Light' perhaps isn't quite the movie it could have been (and maybe should have been), it's also hard to walk away from this one feeling disappointed. Hiddleston's performance alone will keep one engaged in the movie, and while the film doesn't shy away from showing Williams' dark side, it also doesn't showcase it to the point where things are hard to watch or the movie feels overly depressing. Given the buzz on this one, I didn't expect much going in and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'I Saw the Light' appears on Blu-ray in a standard Sony keepcase – the kind with a flap on the side you need to flip up before you can open the case. In addition the 50GB Blu-ray, there's a single insert which contains a code for a digital copy of the movie plus info on the Sony Rewards program (on the flip side). The Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for The Lady in the Van, Son of Saul, Maggie's Plan, 'Dark Horse', and The Meddler. The main menu features a still image of Tom Hiddleston has Hank Williams, with menu selections running horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'I Saw the Light' was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa XT and is presented here in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The movie looks great, providing a sharp, detailed image that still never comes across as too overly digital. The movie has a very period look to it (as it should), with the use of mostly earth-tones in the presentation – meaning a lot of browns, greens, blues, and all the various shades of each.
Better yet, the video is virtually flawless in terms of any glitches. I'm almost always able to spot a hint of banding or a moment of aliasing here and there when it comes to movies shot in the digital format, but I could detect none of either here. Blacks aren't quite inky deep, but there's no problem with shadow delineation and no issues with crush. Skin tones look natural, contain plenty of definition, and are consistent throughout.
I didn't give 'I Saw the Light' a reference-quality score, but it's pretty darn close to being one. For whatever reason (perhaps different people/staff handing the transfers?), I've found most releases under the Sony Pictures Classics brand to have superior video to those release under the standard Sony label. Mark 'I Saw the Light' down as yet another such release.
The featured audio for 'I Saw the Light' is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which isn't as immersive and encompassing as one might expect in a musical biopic, but is nevertheless pleasant-sounding and free from any noticeable glitches.
All of the dialogue is front and center, and even most of the ambient sounds all come from the front of one's audio set-up. The rears are primarily used to enhance the music in the movie, although there are a few outdoor shots when immersion can be felt – such as when Hank goes to talk his wife out of a divorce and listeners/viewers are surrounded by the hum of insects in the hot Alabama countryside (it's actually Louisiana, where filming was done...but you get the point).
The best news here is that everything is mixed properly. Meaning when the singing happens in the movie, it feels natural and isn't amped up for the purposes of the audio presentation. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and while there's virtually nothing in terms of directionality or LFE use, few are going to be displeased with what they get here.
In addition to English 5.1 DTS-HD track, audio is also available in Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in French and Thai, plus an English Audio Descriptive Service track. Subtitles are available in English SDH, English, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, and Thai.
Unfairly dismissed by most major critics (not to mention movie audiences), 'I Saw the Light' is nevertheless a quite entertaining movie headlined by a fantastic performance by Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams. Yes, the movie may not stretch beyond standard biopic tropes, but that doesn't mean it's not a well-made film. Recommended.