Celluloid Country: Payday is a Satisfying, Violent Tale of a Country Outlaw

Juli Thanki | July 23rd, 2009

payday-starring-rip-tornPayday is probably the best Celluloid Country film to date. Unlike the other CC films, which are generally only nominated for Razzies, Payday was actually up for a Writers Guild of America award for Best Drama. Furthermore, Payday doesn’t feature am actual country musician in the lead role. Coincidence? Probably not. There isn’t actually a lot to make fun of, except the hair and wardrobe, but that can be chalked up to the 1970s. It’s apparently something of a cult film, having garnered a small, but devoted, sect of fans; its semi-recent DVD release will certainly introduce it to others.

Rip Torn stars as Maury Dann, a B-list country singer and A-list scumbag. He’s all class onstage and gladhanding fans, but when the spotlight’s off, he’s guzzling Wild Turkey, popping pills, and banging barely legals. Torn, who discerning viewers may recognize as 30 Rock’s Don Geiss, and/or That Guy Who Beat The Crap Out of Norman Mailer, delivers a stunning performance in his role as Dann, a slowly destructing egomaniac who uses everyone in arm’s reach, hence the slogan on the original Payday poster: “If you can’t smoke it, drink it, spend it, or love it…forget it.”

And that’s pretty much what the film’s about. Dann smokes, drinks, spends, and loves while he’s on the road between gigs (the film only shows one performance, and it’s the first scene). He stops in to see his ailing, despairing mama…only to shut her up with a random handful of pills from his guitar case. He doesn’t spare a thought for his so-called friends and employees; the movie implies that numerous band members have either quit or been fired, and when Dann kills a man, he gets his driver, Chicago, to take the fall. And let’s not forget how he dumps a groupie on the side of the road with a wad of cash…only to take said cash back because she hasn’t “[earned] it.”

The moral of the story: despite what we’ve learned in previous Celluloid Country installments, not all country musicians are boy next door types who just happen to anonymously happen upon some chick’s ranch or a haunted mansion. Sometimes they are straight up rotten, but you still sort of root for and loathe them at the same time, thanks to Torn’s multifaceted, polyester clad performance.

When it comes right down to it, Payday is probably the dudeliest country music film we’ve covered—perhaps the dudeliest country music film in existence. Not to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but it sure seems like every scene was written to maximize its Dude Movie potential (other Dude Movies: Roadhouse and anything starring Steve McQueen). This actually makes for a pretty excellent viewing experience as Maury gets into a fistfight with a band member over a hunting dog, sleeps with a SHeDAISY-sized group of young women, and stabs a guy in the parking lot–all in the span of approximately 48 hours. No wonder he gobbles amphetamines like they’re Skittles; I’m exhausted just writing about all of Maury’s exploits.

Though the film is more of a character study than a country music movie with a linear plot and climactic performance a la Pure Country or Rhinestone, there are some decent songs in Payday, including four penned by Shel Silverstein as well as an Ian & Sylvia track. The final scene, which juxtaposes the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” with a horrific, violent ending, is by far the best use of music I’ve seen in any Celluloid Country movie to date. Granted, that’s not saying much, but just trust me: it’s a good ending. It does, however, leave one burning question: just which—if any—country outlaw is Payday based upon?

  1. Kelly
    July 23, 2009 at 11:16 am

    “guzzling Wild Turkey, popping pills, and banging barely legals.”

    I didnt know that my last podcast “interview” was being filmed as well??

  2. Peter
    July 23, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation. This movie sounds fascinating. Just added it to my Netflix queue.

  3. Rick
    July 23, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Juli, its too bad the fine film “Duets” wasn’t centered around country music karaoke as then it would have been right up your alley judging by your enjoyment of this film…(lol)

  4. Juli
    July 23, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    Rick, after sitting through Rhinestone and Doing Time For Patsy Cline, Payday is like Citizen Kane in comparison!

  5. Rick
    July 24, 2009 at 1:52 am

    Juli, now that you’ve actually enjoyed a “Celluloid Country” film its time to get back to the dregs and go for “Grand Theft Parsons”. We’ll overlook the fact the featured “(cosmic) country artist” in the movie is already a corpse and the main “star” is Johnny Knoxville because we get to hear a bit of Gram’s music in the background! (lol)

  6. edd hurt
    December 15, 2009 at 11:14 am

    I first saw “Payday” at least 25 years ago. The film covers not 48 but 36 hours in Maury Dann’s life. Decent enough review but I believe the reviewer has simplified what the film is actually doing–just saw it again on DVD this week and it played even better than it did in the ’80s and probably has more resonance today, when country music has become totally not what this film depicts, than it did when it was made in 1972. Dann does have feelings for his associates; he’s a man who knows he’s escaped his upbringing and reached the limits of what he can do. He also enjoys hunting. What the reviewer also misses is the humor of the film. Country music today is often a sad, deracinated shadow of what it once was–music of real Southern people–and “Payday” is merely about country as backdrop. The real action is the road itself and the grubby little urban world of Alabama in 1972, of which Dann is a sort of ruler.

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