Wille Nelson: “I underestimated you, Dino.”
Rip Torn: “All you sons o’ bitches do.”
When it comes to B-movies and oft-repeated viewings, Songwriter, directed by Alan Rudolph, probably cracks my Top Ten. The pithy elevator pitch for the flick would likely go like this: “Robert Altman’s Nashville meets The Sting.”
In other words, it’s a minor miracle this film even exists.
Although it’s one of my favorite movies, it’s far from a perfect or even great film. What it is, for me at any rate, is quirky, engaging and comfortable as old boots. Guilty pleasure? Nah…more like a dear, dissolute and semi-dangerous friend you know you shouldn’t spend so much time with, and yet…? Hell, how couldn’t you?
Iconic songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson essentially play themselves in a film that amiably pitches bricks at the stained glassed windows of Music Row orthodoxy and the soul-siphoning demands the marketplace exacts from creative types who view themselves, first and foremost, as artists. (“Say he did it for the love, but he was not above the money,” Kristofferson’s Blackie Buck stipulates in the film’s opening monologue. The business is, he says, “A day-to-day war between the sorry and the soulful.”)
That songwriter’s soliloquy overlays a montage that deftly and hilariously establishes Willie’s character’s sketchy acumen as a speculator. Doc’s failed enterprises include investing in the semen of transgendered bulls and in fast food restaurants (“Doc Jenkin’s Chicken Fried German Food To Go,” is located hard up-side a KFC).
“Songwriting was making someone a whole of bucks,” a rueful Blackie observes. “Since it wasn’t us, it had to be someone.” Doc opines to music mogul Rodeo Rocky—an east coast sleaze who owns Doc and the rights to all his songs, coming and going—“You always were sentimental when you had your hand in my pocket.”
“I took a couple of uppers, that’s true.”
Appealing as Kris and Willie are (and they have acres of charm to spare in this outing), the crazy, dark heart of the film is Rip Torn’s sleazy music promoter Dino McLeish (“Word’s out you on, Hoss. You don’t pay your talent.”). He’s a cowboy and western suit wearing dervish “who’s been up since Korea.” He has a Mephistophelean mustache and goatee. Dino subsists on amphetamines, booze and a scuffling drive to turn a buck any way he can. Dino is also the kind of operator whose reputation for failing to deliver the goods is so notorious that casual country music fans routinely boo him and chuck their empties at Dino as he jeers and spews profanity from behind chicken wire curtains strung across the stages of the Texas roadhouses he infests.
Doc: “How many tickets did you sell?”
Doc: “Building only holds 5,000.”
Dino: “Well, shit, Bubba, airlines do that all the time.”
Dino’s trademark modus operandi: He books a hall and announces a major performer (say, KK’s Blackie Buck or Willie’s “Doc Jenkins”). Dino sells beaucoup tickets, then, the night of the show, he announces the never-booked-headliner has phoned-in sick, and pushes on stage some untalented unknown. Dino attempts this shakedown using Blackie one night in Austin. Blackie turns up at the concert anyway, where he finds Dino’s bait-and-switch has resulted in a busty and vocally impressive Leslie Ann Warren taking the stage.
Thus is born an uneasy partnership and eventual “Big Store” con (ala “The Sting” or James Garner’s Maverick’s “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres.”)—a scheme fostered between Dino, boozy Blackie (“The only reason I drink is so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend!”), Doc and Warren’s fetching “Gilda.”
“Listen, nine times out of ten, you know, they think people start this.
But sheep is good and they know it.
They’ll flirt with you, don’t think they won’t.”
Dino’s an uneasy family man. His wife is a young and randy strayer. Their baby son is named Buster. During a brief provisioning stopover at home (the interior décor of the McLeish crib runs heavy on pleather and neon bar signs), Dino is confronted by his wife and her desire to accompany him to his next bogus concert spectacular.
Angling, Dino pauses. He frames the image of his wife and his child between his hands and says, “Hold it! I wish the vision of how beautiful you all are could be painted on the Great Wall of China. Man, I mean that… We’re family, you know? Know what that means? Deep stuff.” Every ounce of his demeanor says otherwise.
“You’re going to chop them down like dead limbs.”
Devoid of conscience as he is, Dino happily goes along with cash-strapped, contract-shackled Doc Jenkins’ scheme to subvert his required services for an unscrupulous music label by continuing to write hit songs but publish and release those gems as the alleged works of Blackie and Gilda.
Gilda, on the other hand, chafes under this duplicity: she turns to whiskey and drugs in increasingly copious quantities to offset her sense of guilt. Dino sums up their eventual business prospects with his usual blunt panache: “Dang it, Doc…it’s a classic. We put all our chips on a hysterical, neurotic drunk woman; she’s gonna make us rich…or dead.”
Songwriter is lush with clever dialogue, sardonic, memorable turns of phrase, and just enough underlying drama to pierce your heart at unexpected moments.
It also boasts a running commentary about the torturous tension of art and commerce (a motif Rudolph would explore more directly in his films Trouble in Mind and, particularly, The Moderns). As it happens, the film’s embittered take from the artist’s perspective freshly reverberates for anyone endeavoring to make a living with words in the “disruptive technology”-rich atmosphere of the eBook and Internet era.
But Songwriter is also a meditation on the destructive (sometimes seductive) myth of the tortured artist and their resulting top-drawer output. Blackie, strumming his guitar in a Ramada Inn, laments, “Do you suppose a man’s got to be a miserable son of a bitch, all the time, just to write a good song every now and then? That’s a terrible thought.”
Rudolph has indicated he stepped in as replacement director of Songwriter in order to fund his making of closer-to-his-heart Trouble in Mind, also starring Kristofferson. Even if it’s so, Songwriter is very much of a piece with Rudolph’s later 1980s, signature works.
It’s been a long while since the last Rudolph film. The director says it’s because he doesn’t have the heart or stomach to go out there and try and raise the gelt to mount another production.
That’s a damned shame. In this case, I’d welcome his taking the money to do it for the (cockeyed) art.
Doc to Dino: “How’d you do?”
Dino to Doc: “I did pretty good. You got robbed.”