Celluloid Country: Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in Songwriter

Juli Thanki | November 9th, 2009

cc-songwriterI think I’d watch Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in any type of movie. Buddy cop, period piece, tastefully shot erotica…well, maybe not any type of movie. In 1984’s Songwriter, they basically seem to be playing alternate universe versions of themselves. Nelson is Doc Jenkins, a great singer/songwriter with aspirations of making a fortune as a music mogul. Kristofferson is Jenkins’ best pal, Blackie Buck, a charismatic and frequently shirtless country artist who “drinks so people don’t think [he’s] a dope fiend.”

When Doc gets caught up in a bad publishing deal thanks to sleazy businessman Rodeo Rocky, he calls on Blackie to help him out. Wackiness ensues, as it so often does in a Willie Nelson movie. Doc cooks up a plot to make some money and screw over Rocky. He discovers Gilda, a slightly nutty up and coming singer, then slaps Blackie and Gilda’s names on songs he writes, telling them, “you get the credit, I get the money.”
Can Doc scheme his way out of Rodeo Rocky’s contract and make enough money to provide for his kids and ex-wife, who he may still love? And just exactly how much of this film is based on the exploits of Nelson and Kristofferson in their rowdier days? Nelson, who sold the wildly successful song “Night Life” for peanuts, sure learned about the ins and outs of the music business the hard way, so there might be a grain of truth in Doc’s plotting.

Songwriter doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, mostly because its two leading men sure seem to be having a blast, thus suggesting that the question Blackie poses to Doc, “Do you suppose a man has to be a miserable son of a bitch all the time just to write a good song now and then” might not be true after all. Celluloid Country repeat offender Lesley Ann Warren is excellent as neurotic, drunk, girl singer Gilda (she was nominated for a Golden Globe), and there are a couple other recognizable faces in the mix, including Rip Torn (Payday) as slick promoter Dino. Members of Willie’s band and Stephen Bruton show up as well in Songwriter, appearing as…the band. Rodeo Rocky is played by Richard C. Sarafian, best known around these parts as the director of the supercreepy “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, while the film’s actual director, Alan Rudolph, is an Altman disciple who’d again work with Kristofferson in Trouble in Mind.

The music, written by Nelson and Kristofferson, is damn good. “Who’ll Buy My Memories,” shows up, as does Kristofferson’s “Under the Gun.” Songwriter will never make any AFI “Best Of” lists. But when it comes to films starring musicians, it’s not half bad, thanks to the many charms and musical talents of Willie and Kris Kristofferson, who was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Song Score category. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes…like listening to Countryman on a loop.

  1. Steve Harvey
    November 9, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes…like listening to Countryman on a loop.
    Hey! I love that record.

  2. Rick
    November 9, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    So let’s see, we’ve got characters named Doc Jenkins, Blackie Buck, Rodeo Rocky, Dino, and Gilda(?). With names like that you just know this movie was trying to attract the “Smokey & The Bandit” and “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show crowd. How in the hell did they choose the name Gilda for Leslie Anne Warren’s character? If there’s not a story behind that, there should be…

  3. Truersound
    November 9, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Smokey and the bandit is one of my favorite movies, and dukes of hazzard one of my favorite TV shows!

    I remember watching this movie as a child when it came out, and all I remember about it is the scene where Kristofferson (coulda been Willie) has a shirt that he folds up and it says fuck off or some such. I got a big kick out of that as a 7 or 8 year old.

    I am an unabashed fan of late 70’s early 80’s redneck cinema. Smokey and the Bandit, Stroker Ace….hell anything with Burt Reynolds in it, Every Which Way But Loose, Six Pack, Eat My Dust, hell even Urban Cowboy.

    I’m going to have to hunt this out on DVD, had forgotten all about it!

    Thanks for this review.

  4. Rick
    November 9, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Truersound said: “I am an unabashed fan of late 70’s early 80’s redneck cinema. Smokey and the Bandit, Stroker Ace….hell anything with Burt Reynolds in it, Every Which Way But Loose, Six Pack, Eat My Dust, hell even Urban Cowboy.”

    Are you sure you want this information so prominently proclaimed in the public domain?…(lol)

    November 9, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    don’t put down countryman

  6. God
    November 10, 2009 at 2:07 am

    Those who mock ‘Countryman’ shall face harsh retribution when they reach my domain.

  7. Truersound
    November 10, 2009 at 7:06 am

    yeah, countryman was horrible. I agree. And it’s been something of a quest of mine to find good country reggae fusions. So far not much luck. The first track on countryman is decent enough. Good country reggae fusions would be Steve Earle – By The Rivers of Babylon, Steve Earle & The V-Roys – Johnny Too Bad, Greensky Bluegrass – Stop The Train

    Those are off the top of my head. It’s really great stuff when done right.

    Also Rick. You saying you don’t like smokey and the bandit….how can you not like smokey and the bandit, possible the greatest piece of cinema known to man? :)

  8. J.R. Journey
    November 10, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Truersound said: “I am an unabashed fan of late 70’s early 80’s redneck cinema. Smokey and the Bandit, Stroker Ace….hell anything with Burt Reynolds in it, Every Which Way But Loose, Six Pack, Eat My Dust, hell even Urban Cowboy.”

    I love all those movies too. Six Pack is definitely my favorite Kenny Rogers movie. I also love Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sweet Dreams (the Patsy Cline biopic that used to a cable regular), 9 to 5, and almost any other movie from that era that has the slightest connection to country music.

    Yes, I am a big fan of late 70s, early 80s redneck cinema. I just love watching them over and over again. Haven’t seen this film, but I may also have to go on a DVD treasure hunt and pick up some of these gems.

  9. Shank Filoso
    November 20, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I was born in New York and grew up listening and break dancing to hiphop music of the mid 80’s and 90’s. As I got older I got more into rapping and writing music.I have very little if anything to do with country music but was fortunate enough to catch this movie on cable at like 4:30 in the morning and watched the whole thing! I knew very little of Willie Nelson’s career but after the movie felt that I learned much about the business of music plus appreciated the film from a songwriter point of view. It was very inspiring to me as a writer and I now have the pleasure of learning more about the career of Willie Nelson and checking out more of his music. If you are a true musician with a genuine love for music you will enjoy this movie. I am a hardcore hiphop fan and yes this movie was great, being country or not has very little to do with the enjoyment of this film. – S. filoso

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