Classic Film Review: Willie & Kris & Country Music at its Most Rambunctious — “Songwriter” (1984)

The venerated Willie Nelson‘s 90th birthday and the celebrated character actress Melinda Dillon‘s recent passing lured me back to “Songwriter,” an ornery and always amusing country music comedy built around Nelson’s story, Nelson’s persona and Nelson’s attitudes about Nashville and the country music industry.

It didn’t make a lot of noise when it came out in 1984, earning an Oscar nomimation for the music Nelson and co-star and longtime running mate Kris Kristofferson wrote for it. And there’d already been a “What Willie’s REALLY like” country music tale, “Honeysuckle Rose” just a couple of years before. But it was well cast, representative of its milieu and its era, and it’s still damned funny almost 40 years later.

Willie plays Doc Jenkins, a prolific songwriter who sold the rights to his music to a Chicago-born hustler (director and sometime actor Richard Sarafian) who bought a hat and reinvented himself as Rodeo Rocky.

A whole other movie flickers through the montage of the film’s opening credits — Doc’s (cleanshaven) years of struggle, his marriage to his backup singer/muse Honey (Dillon) and subsequent divorce, idiotic “investments” (a German fried chicken restaurant), other women, glory days on the road touring with Blackie Buck (Kristofferson), all bringing us to Doc’s current dilemma.

He’s got a business — Cowbird Music — which represents Blackie, has a “supergroup” record he’s been recording, has a Nashville McMansion, a giant Cadillac convertible, alimony and debts up the yin yang.

How can a creative fellow with no financial sense create under such conditions? He makes his escape “back to Austin,” where he can reconnect with the music, not the business, dodge Rodeo Rocky, make money to try and buy back his publishing rights, catch up with the ever-touring Blackie and “discover” the sexy chanteuse (Lesley Anne Warren) who opens for Blackie, but is represented by the most unsavory promoter this side of Don King — Dino (Rip Torn).

There are a lot of relationships and threads that wove this picture together. Producer Sydney Pollack had discovered Willie’s on camera naturalism in “The Electric Horseman,” and built “Honeysuckle Rose” around him. Nelson’s friend, the Texas screenwriter Edwin “Bud” Shrake (“J.W. Coop,” “Tom Horn”) dreamed up this version of Nashville star Willie’s return to Texas tale.

Steve Rash, the director of the music bio-pic that set the star-does-her/his own singing standard of the era, “The Buddy Holly Story,” was behind the camera for a couple of weeks before Pollack brought in the Altman acolyte Alan Rudolph (“Roadie,” “Choose”) to take over. Rudolph gave the picture its loose, playful feel, a “Nashville” with more laughs.

And scene-stealer Torn had made his bones in the genre with the country music cult classic “Payday” a decade before.

Under Altman, Rudolph absorbed the bubbling life of a busy, noisy, chattering film set, something that informed some of his pictures, especially this one.

Nelson and Kristofferson cooked up a dozen songs, and the music — including the title tune — is distinctly theirs. Willie’s Doc picks out his ode to the Nashville music business, “Write Your Own Songs.”

“Mr. Purified Country don’t you know what the whole things about?
Is your head up your ass so far that you can’t pull it out?
The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs
And if you can’t see that Mr. Purified Country
Why don’t you just write your own songs?”

Kristofferson, no slouch as a songwriter himself, has Blackie wonder, ” Do you suppose a man’s got to be a miserable son of a bitch all the time, just to write a good song every now & then?”

These two scheme and kvetch and banter and recycle bits from old Western movies, with any long spiel earning a comical dare — “Say that again.” (from “Red River”).

Country music is depicted as lily white, dominated by non-performing hustlers and populated with drunks.

“The only reason I drink is so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend!”

Comical characters show up for a scene or two — Gailard Sartain plays the last s–tkicker you want managing your money. Sammy Allred is a DJ Doc wants to bribe to play his new singer Gilda’s first single.

“Payola ain’t dead around here,” the jock jokes. “It ain’t even sick.”

And then there’s the dangerous object of fun Dino, a small-timer destined to stay that way, but protecting what’s his and what he’s aimin’ to skim off the box office take with that there pistol he packs in his cowboy boot.

When a guitar player takes up with Dino’s road girlfriend — the movie is pretty damned sexist, any way you slice it — Dino marches him out of the motel room and to the pool in his underwear, makes him park Dino’s half-empty beer stein on his head, and takes a tipsy snub-nosed shot at shooting it off the cuckolder’s head.

“I underestimated you, Dino,” Doc marvels.
Aaalllll you sumbitches do,” Dino growls, my favorite line in the movie and my favorite line in the Rip Torn canon.

“Songwriter” is dated and a bit disheveled. And some of the film’s and Willie’s outlaw reputation have softened over the decades as he’s become America’s loveable iconoclast, a great songwriter, socially out of touch with the ultra-conservative fanbase of his medium, and a bit of a mutt when it comes to his personal life and his inability to manage money.

But the film’s scruffy charms do not dim with age. If you’re in the mood for a musical roman a clef where the songs are sharp and the singing is effortlessly on key, don’t underestimate “Songwriter.”

Rating: R, nudity, profanity, alcohol abuse

Cast: Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Lesley Anne Warren, Melinda Dillon and Rip Torn.

Credits: Directed by Alan Rudolph, scripted by Bud Shrake. A Tristar release on The Sony Movie Channel, Tubi, etc.

Running time: 1:34


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Classic Film Review: Willie & Kris & Country Music at its Most Rambunctious — “Songwriter” (1984)

  1. Dwaine Kimmick says:

    It really is a great flick

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