In 1982, Clint Eastwood directed one of the first pictures of his career in which he wore his musical influences on his sleeve. In the film, he plays the character Red Stovall (based on Jimmie Rodgers), an ailing Country Western singer-songwriter with Tuberculosis and not long to live. He has been playing Honky Tonks for years and making a minor name for himself throughout the country during the post-WWI period and into the epoch of the film, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. And finally, he has been given an opportunity to audition for the Grand Ole Opry at the world famous Ryman Auditorium. But the trip out to Nashville is no easy trek and will cost a pretty penny just to get from where he’s currently settled way out in the furthest Western reaches of the Mid-West.
Though he has little money of his own, Red picks up a few unlikely fellow travelers along the way who ante up a portion of the funds, including his brother’s wife’s father who was born in Tennessee and wants to return to die there, as well as Red’s nephew who has an intense interest in Country music, wants to learn to play guitar, and most importantly, wants to escape the fate of working as a cotton picker on other men’s ranches for the remainder of his life. Along the way, they stop through Tulsa, Oklahoma and track down an old friend of Red’s named Derwood Arnspringer who owes Red $100. The guy doesn’t have the money, and initially tries to pawn some girl off on Red instead of the money before eventually telling him about a fake robbery plot he’s got going with a diner down the street. He sends one of his thugs to take $100 from the till, the owner pockets $100 bucks from the till, and then reports that $200 was taken: a win-win for the robber and for the owner of the joint, and a loss for the government, which everyone holds in contempt anyway.
Unfortunately, Derwood’s son, who was supposed to inform the woman at the diner about the hold-up, decided to forego this responsibility and almost gets Red and his nephew killed in the process as they attempt to rob the joint without the woman being informed. When Red returns to Derwood’s bar, he steals the money from him and his fellow crap players at the poker table in the foyer, as well as an extra $100 for his troubles, and then rides off into the night with the money, and unbeknownst to him, the girl, stowed away in the trunk of his car.
Much of the rest of the film follows the exploits of Red as he plays various dive bars, hits on tons of women, makes a little money and a spreads his legend through every Honky Tonk he can find to play. His pre-teen nephew Whit Wagoneer (played by Clint’s son Kyle Eastwood, and named after Porter Wagoner) has his first experiences with crime, breaking his uncle out of prison, driving a car, boozing, smoking weed, womanizing, and writing music (he even helps his uncle pen the words to what will become his posthumous hit ‘Honkytonk Man’). Together they steal chickens, trick police officers, and see the plains and the forests and the highways of this great land and become closer to the spirit of where they’re music sprung up, to the wellspring of their beings that gives strength to the music they produce (and whose absence is what makes popular music from the 80s onward rootless, meandering drivel for the most part).
When Red reaches Nashville and finally auditions at the legendary home of Country music, his TB begins to act up again and he is forced to leave the stage before he finishes what would otherwise be a great, star-making audition. Incidentally, the player who auditions on stage before Red takes the Ryman stage is Porter Wagoner, one of the greatest Country music stars of all time and a personal favorite of mine for his murder ballads and tales of the down and out, the oppressed, the mentally ill, and the those otherwise on the periphery of society. In the film, Red’s botched audition ensures that he will never play the Ryman on the Grand Ole Opry as the promoters cannot risk him having a coughing fit in the middle of a show.
But his voice and his writing is promising enough for a local recording studio to take a chance on him (something that never happens anymore on account of the restructuring of the music industry toward fewer artists and less chance, and which also necessitates their deaths and bankruptcies to move American music toward anything like a revival of artistry or importance). The studio commissions an album of singles from Red, which he records in his final days before kicking the bucket and that become radio hits that give him fame beyond his death. During these recording sessions, the Country-Western penman and performer of the classic ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, Marty Robbins, acts as one amongst the session musicians in the room and even contributes a few lines to Eastwood’s surprisingly good tune. This film would prove to be Robbins final public appearance before his death in December of 1982.
The film is an homage to some of Eastwood’s musical heroes and inspirations and would form the first part of what would later become a triptych of sorts in which Eastwood explores his preoccupations with various American musical artists. The second of this triptych would come six years later on Bird, Eastwood’s biopic on the life of Charlie Parker. The third, Jersey Boys, would be released almost thirty years later, in 2014, and explored the doo-wop musical craze of the 40s and 50s. Although the latter is a picture I personally couldn’t stand because of the vapidity and lack of vitality of the music that those bands produced, Honkytonk Man and Bird are every bit deserving of the critical praise they received when they were first released and have continued to received over the following 36 and 30 years, respectively.
[Catch another Eastwood film review here: Heartbreak Ridge]