“Songwriter” with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson

www.nashville.com
by: Jason Shawhan

Songwriter Is the Best Movie About Country Music — See It Monday at the Belcourt

The 1984 Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson film screens July 3 as part of Music City Mondays

Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter is one of the 10 best films ever made. It’s a musical that’s big on diegesis, a heist caper, a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches epic, a whiskey-soaked and bawdy picaresque, and a deeply funny meditation on trying to leave your mark on a world that’s passing you by. There have been a lot of great films made on those subjects and circumstances, but Songwriter is a movie I love like family.

Most folks who still have chips on their shoulders about Altman’s Nashville don’t even acknowledge this film, as Songwriter’s portrayal of Nashville reduces it to a business center where art is an afterthought. Indeed, other than some second-unit shots, Austin, Texas, plays the part of Nashville as needed. And while Nashville remains the best film ever made about America, Songwriter is both the best movie about the mechanics of country music, and the best movie made by country musicians. Some aspects of the biz never change, and it’s in recontextualizing a lot of the hokier, traditional narrative elements that Rudolph and the cast make something truly special. 

Doc (Willie Nelson), caught on the horns of a bad deal, calls upon his old friend Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson) to unleash a caper of ’70s-thriller intricacy and ’80s-success-porn scope. Along the way, scores get settled, fortunes are won and lost, careers end with a whimper and launch with fireworks, and just about everybody has two or three killer songs. It’s awesome. Everybody loves Willie as a character actor, but here he really gets to put it all out there, the shaky swagger and the eternal humanist in an uneasy balance. 

Nelson’s then-manager Bud Shrake evolved the screenplay along the emotional and financial roller coaster that Nelson was going through at the time, and the end result is a film that anybody who’s been on the business end of a terrible deal can relate to. When he sings “Who’ll Buy My Memories” to Melinda Dillon — who brings heart and soul to the role of “the ex-wife” that could have been wallpaper in the wrong hands — it’s as devastating a moment as movies can give.

And damned if Kristofferson isn’t just as good, drinking and sexing his way across the country with a smile and a panoply of hits. The two together make a comic duo of irresistible goofy charm — Beckett via vaudeville — and they find the breezy in the brutal just as easily as they find the harsh in the hilarious. The rest of the supporting cast fits into this world effortlessly, with Lesley Ann Warren as ingenue/next big thing, Rip Torn as Machiavellian promoter and Richard Sarafian as the corrupt business honcho Rodeo Rocky. All take no prisoners with their performances.

What ultimately makes Songwriter the best film about country music, and the one I will recommend to anybody and everybody for as long as I live, is that you don’t have to give a shit about country music to love it. Really, you don’t. This is a textually rich film, one that gets better and funnier with each viewing. But if you love country music and the people who make it, there’s not going to be another movie that scratches those itches like this one does.

Leave a Reply