Honky Tonk Cinema: From Nashville to Brantford, Ontario
Senior Programmer Steve Gravestock looks at the long, complicated history of country and western music on screen
Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave plays TIFF Bell Lightbox December 2 at 6:30pm, with an introduction from its star, singer Sneezy Waters.
Country and western music’s strange, symbiotic relationship with Hollywood stretches back to the emergence of talkies and the singing-cowboy movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Hokey stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Tex Ritter would warble or yodel randomly as they rode some studio backlot in between clumsy action sequences. Though these films were usually bankrolled by easterners in fancy suits who’d never ridden a fence or roped a steer, the fad played a role in foregrounding the western element in country music itself.
The term “western” originally referenced both Texas swing and cowboy songs. The former was a 1930s movement of jazz-influenced dance bands from Texas and Oklahoma, best exemplified by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Cowboy songs — based on older tunes from a wide range of traditions, including European, African, and Mexican — had been part of American culture since the mid-19th century. After the singing-cowboy fad broke, though, these traditions were overshadowed by more superficial elements. Western clothes and themes (horses, gunfighters, etc.) became essential affectations in C&W music as the western genre’s popularity grew on both big and small screens. (By 1958, eight of the top 10 US TV shows were period westerns.)
The singing-cowboy films insisted on a profoundly implausible notion of showbiz sincerity. Onscreen, Autry and Rogers played versions of themselves with their real-life names; sometimes their roles mirrored real life, too: In Sioux City Sue (1946), Autry battled studio heads who wouldn’t let him be himself; in Phantom Empire (1935), he struggled to keep his radio show going as he solved crimes on the side. “Reality” becomes utterly surreal, tied as it is to the most brazen artifice. How effective can a cowboy be when driving cattle with a guitar in his hand?
This obsessive, stubborn conflation of screen identity and sincerity extends far back in American culture, and recurs again and again in movies referencing country and western (often accompanied by a large amount of mythologizing). The fixation is not the only absurd aspect of the films. Race, for instance, is brought up in few films — usually the better ones — despite the debts country music owed to blues and jazz.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many of the best films about country and western have, like a fair percentage of the music, been made by Canadians. Much of this has to do with Canadians looking at the music, and the cultural beliefs and assumptions behind it, from a distance. As writer Jason Schneider noted in Whispering Pines, his history of Canadian pop music, Canadians had the unique option of selectively drawing from American music unrestrained “by the shackles of history.”
Hollywood’s relationship with country can be consigned to five different periods or strains. The yodelling-cowboy movies were followed by the hicksploitation period: films set in rural areas and featuring country music. A slew of great country performers appeared in these, including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Faron Young. Often, the homespun sincerity and wide-eyed innocence of the country stars (or their loved ones) would get them out of whatever hackneyed predicament the screenwriters devised. This subgenre got a second wind during the 1970s with a spate of lower-budget regional films, largely made by indie producers or companies like AIP and sparked by the success of franchises like Billy Jack and Walking Tall, culminating with Smokey and the Bandit. This resulted in some of the most important C&W films: Daryl Duke’s Payday, Paul Lynch’s Canadian drama The Hard Part Begins, and even the apex of American filmmaking, Robert Altman’s Nashville. If the cowboys’ homespun savvy saved the day in the earlier films, the characters in the 1970s wave were dogged by hard luck and bad decisions.
The third period began with the most influential country-star biopics, Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, based on Loretta Lynn’s bestselling autobiography. Its success, along with the mainstream film crossovers of Dolly Parton (9 to 5; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Kris Kristofferson (A Star is Born), and Willie Nelson (Electric Horseman; Honeysuckle Rose) would spark an onslaught of biographical TV movies about Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams Jr., Dottie West, and the Judds, to name just a few. Walk the Line and Ray reinvigorated the biopic strain in the last decade.
A list of some of the best examples follows:
A Face in the Crowd Elia Kazan, USA, 1957
Based on a script by Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan’s film introduced Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a conniving vagabond/amateur singer catapulted to TV stardom after being discovered by a culturally clueless producer (Patricia Neal). On air, Rhodes dispenses homespun advice and spits venom at his enemies. A vitriolic shot at the idiocies and dumbing-down potential of the new medium — and the dangers posed by faux working-class demagogues buoyed by pop celebrity — the film demonstrates a terror of mass culture run amok similar to what George Romero would later channel with his zombie films.
At least it has a happy ending: Rhodes’s political ambitions (absurd then, all too real now) are laid low by his own arrogance and vulgarity when he lets rip with his real opinion of his fans over a hot microphone. Would that this were still possible.
Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave David Acomba, Canada, 1980
Easily the best film about the most important postwar figure in country and western, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave is a fantasy about the night Williams died, as Patti Smith once put it, “of an overdose in a hammock in the back of a limousine on his way to a gig.” Based on Maynard Collins’ beloved play, one of the most successful Canadian theatre pieces of the period, the film has a bored-out-of-his-skull Williams (Sneezy Waters) heading to a stadium show and dreaming of playing a set in one of the roadhouses they’re passing by. Lots of movies have had similar scenes, but few captured the raucous desperation one assumes fuelled those gigs like this one does. Greeted like a rock star, with screaming fans nearly fainting before him, Hank gradually loses it. His monologues get longer and more self-pitying, scaring the women and infuriating the men.
The Show He Never Gave is a powerful portrait of addiction and mental instability, and an invocation of Williams’ particular genius. Once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to consider anyone besides Waters playing Williams. It is also one of the rare C&W movies to acknowledge the free flow of musical influences across racial lines, evident in a scene where Hank and the janitor, an older Black man, get drunk and swap tunes.
Payday Daryl Duke, USA, 1973
Made during one of American cinema’s richest, most risk-friendly eras, Canadian Daryl Duke’s little-seen, near-legendary movie follows regional country star Maury Dann (Rip Torn), as he barrels through the rural South playing roadhouses, guzzling whiskey, popping pills, and causing a general ruckus. Frequently using close-ups so toxically tight you can see every drop of alcohol-sweat beading on the characters’ jaundiced faces, Duke paints a portrait of a man driven by greed, recklessness, and the ghosts of childhood poverty — and insulated by his minor celebrity status: the Bad Lieutenant of C&W. Offered a big opportunity by his manager (a potential spot on a Johnny Cash special), Dann grows livid because waiting around for it might mean missing out on sure money from a handful of gigs. His sad philosophy is to squeeze out every dime from any opportunity, no matter how low.
If the open road represents possibility in other American movies (country-related or otherwise; see below), the road here is a closed or collapsing circuit. In many ways, Payday is the aesthetic culmination of the hicksploitation/regional-cinema period characterized by lesser C&W fare like Hillbillies in a Haunted House, cousins to productions like the Walking Tall) franchise.
The Hard Part Begins Paul Lynch, Canada, 1973
Before Bruce McDonald, the master of the Canadian road movie was Paul Lynch, who made several films about small-town touring entertainers, including Blood & Guts (about wrestlers) and, most memorably, The Hard Part Begins. The hero is Jim King (Donnelly Rhodes, in his best performance), who heads up a band called King and Country. King ruled the Southern Ontario circuit in his heyday, but now the bars are booking more lucrative rock acts instead — and King’s musicians are decamping. A meeting with a Toronto record executive may improve King’s fortunes, but the lead-up to it to starts to amplify all the bad decisions he’s made in order to keep the party going. As King tours more low-rent venues than even Maury Dann in Payday, The Hard Part Begins becomes a document of early-’70s subcultures in Ontario. It also boasts a fine score by Ian Guenther and various songwriters) (the title song was used recently in McDonald’s Weirdos), a great supporting cast, and a genuine affection for the milieu.
It would be easy to write an all-Canadian version of this list, which could include — in addition to The Hard Part Begins, Payday, and Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave — Gregory Wild’s Highway of Heartache (1996), Sandy Wilson’s Harmony Cats (1992), Michael Mabbott’s The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico (2005), Jerry Ciccoritti’s Shania: A Life in Eight Albums (2005), Shane Harvey’s Paper Promises (2010), and Aaron James Sorensen’s Hank Williams First Nation (2005), to name just a handful.
Coal Miner’s Daughter Michael Apted, USA, 1980
In many ways ground-zero C&W films (and singer biopics), Coal Miner’s Daughter was made by British director Michael Apted, who does some of his best work capturing the feel of the Kentucky hamlet where Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) was raised in a large family led by her hardworking mother and near-saintly father (played by The Band’s Levon Helm), who is heartbroken when Loretta leaves the area after marrying flashy World War II veteran Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones). The film outlines, heartbreakingly, a major social shift in the postwar period, when travel both alerted Americans to new possibilities outside their family homes and wreaked havoc on communities and their traditions. Chosen for the role by Lynn herself, Spacek delivers a stellar performance as a woman who gave voice to that experience and to everyday obstacles confronted by women of the time. There are also stand-out turns by Jones and especially Beverly D’Angelo, who plays Lynn’s Nashville mentor, Patsy Cline.
Sweet Dreams Karel Reisz, USA, 1985
This elegant biopic about fabled country icon Patsy Cline was inspired by the financial success of Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, and elaborates on many of the themes in the earlier film, most notably the notion of escape. A no-nonsense party girl, Cline (Jessica Lange) is unhappily married, a fact detailed in conversations with her mother (the criminally underrated Ann Wedgeworth, who passed away last month). Enter hard-drinking second husband Charlie Dick (Ed Harris). Their relationship with him is characterized by turmoil and violence. Cline’s successes only exacerbate the tensions at home.
A nascent feminism runs throughout Sweet Dreams, evident in Cline’s ambition: she’d rather be Hank Williams than Kitty Wells. And, unlike many other C&W films, its story world doesn’t present country as the only musical form. When Charlie and Patsy fall in love, they dance to Sam Cooke, not Bob Wills. This is especially appropriate in Cline’s case, since she was one of the first real belters in country, and her slick records shared more with pop than those of almost all her contemporaries.
Icelandic Cowboys Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, Iceland, 1984
The mythical allure of country and western was never better substantiated internationally than in Icelandic master Friðriksson’s early documentary Icelandic Cowboys. The hero, Hallbjorn Hjartarson (a.k.a. Johnny King), is desperate for C&W stardom, Icelandic style. He figures setting up a big festival will get him on the radio despite the fact that, as he announces before his performance, “The band has not practiced the material they will be performing tonight … We sent tapes back and forth by mail.” King learned about country through his job as a projectionist showing westerns at the US naval base in Iceland. (Appropriately enough, given Iceland’s pledge of permanent neutrality, he would moonlight as a projectionist at the Soviet embassy.) At the beginning, King urges people to behave and “drink in moderation ... [So] we will all leave proud and content.” Several toxic days later, the film was done and Friðriksson would soon be deluged with requests from concert goers that he cut them out of the film to spare them humiliation.
Heartworn Highways James Szalapski, USA, 1976
A kind of celluloid Cosmic Cube for fans of Americana, James Szalapski’s documentary looks at some of the key figures of the outlaw and alt-country movements, including Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, David Allan Coe, and Guy Clark, more mainstream country figures such as Charlie Daniels, and lesser-known people like Steve Young and Larry Jon Wilson. The theme is the music’s rebirth in certain sectors of Nashville and Austin, but it’s also a tribute to the durability of its traditions and sentiments. High points include Szalapksi’s conversation with Mak, owner of an old-time country joint, who laments country’s decline (he claims Johnny Cash has “shot his wad”), and a pantsuited Peggy Brooks giving her all as she somehow conjures up all the amateur bands around the world at every open stage on every night of the week.
The film‘s through line is provided by Guy and Susanna Clark’s kitchen table, where almost everyone gets together to jam. (It was too many nights like these, most of them with Van Zandt — whose goofy charm is on full display here — that prompted Susanna to threaten to leave Clark if he didn’t shape up. The incident was memorialized in Clark’s last great recording, “My Favorite Picture of You,” his tribute to Susanna after she passed away in 2012.)
Songwriter Allan Rudolph, USA , 1984
Willie Nelson plays Willie Nelson in Allan Rudolph’s underrated Songwriter, but has a lot more fun with his own image than Gene Autry or Roy Rogers ever did before him. Though a successful songwriter and performer, Doc Jenkins (Nelson, cleverly using a made-up name) has squandered the money he made writing songs with a string of hare-brained catastrophic deals. (The bad deals were based on Nelson’s own poor decisions, including selling one mega-hit for the paltry sum of $150.) Fed up, Doc decides to get real (what else?) and tries to rekindle things with true love Honey (Melinda Dillon), but he needs to get out of his current contract first. Enter old buddy Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson), long-time crony/adversary and outlaw concert promoter (Rip Torn), and troubled singer Gilda (Lesley Ann Warren) to help out.
Deliriously devoid of wholesome types, Songwriter is a much-needed antidote to the repulsive sanctimony of official Christian country culture and the bleak 1970s pessimism of predecessors like Payday, revelling in its honest, open love of easy-going corruption. Screenwriter Bud Shrake’s best line comes in Blackie’s premature epitaph for Doc: “He did it for love, but he wasn’t above the money.” (Warren and Nelson would team up again in Bobby Roth’s sweet-tempered Baja, Oklahoma.) This film is probably the best example of how country stars once made virtues out of their vices.
Nashville Robert Altman, USA, 1975
Essentially Nathaniel West’s Hollywood-set moral apocalypse Day of the Locust transferred to another entertainment capitol, Altman’s prescient masterpiece remains one of the last best examples of American cinema directly engaging intelligently and critically with contemporary politics and culture. (It’s one of the few films in this subgenre that foregrounds race.) Set against a shady populist political campaign and the efforts of its manager (Michael Murphy) to enlist country stars as backers, the film is about the coalescence of entertainment and politics, the emptiness of populism, the myths percolating through country music, and “its longing for roots that don’t exist,” as Pauline Kael put it.
The film riffs on actual events in prominent stars’ lives. The biggest star, Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), is a nod to the public breakdowns of Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn; Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) is based on Charlie Pride; Henry Gibson’s sequined opportunist Haven Hamilton was supposedly based on Canadian export Hank Snow but suggests Porter Wagoner just as much. The film takes a dim view of country music fans, but is also weirdly forgiving. Witness its sympathy for the forlorn obsessions of Scott Glenn’s soldier, or the ambitions of Gwen Welles’ failed singer, and the fact that, when the gunfire finally erupts, it’s the most self-obsessed and shallow — Haven Hamilton and Keith Carradine’s callow libertine Tom — who step up to the plate.
Nashville was hated in Nashville because the industry thought they were being mocked, and the songs (written by the performers and Richard Baskin) were widely trashed — inexplicably, since they’re far better than almost any musical theatre attempt to mimic a form. We never see the populist candidate Hal Phillip Walker — though chances are, despite his accent, he’s probably some Easterner in a fancy suit who never once rode a fence or roped a steer. Fucker.
Steve Gravestock is Senior Programmer at TIFF.