Celluloid Country: Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson in Songwriter
I 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.
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