Sony // 1985 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // November 4th, 2004
Nobody ever had a better time getting even.
Doc Jenkins (Willie Nelson, Honeysuckle Rose) and Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson, Blade) were the most successful country duo in the business. However, life hasn't been too good for Doc in recent years. With two failed marriages behind him, Doc has been swindled out of his songwriting company by Rodeo Rocky (Richard C. Sarafian, who directed Vanishing Point). Broke and desperate to regain control of his company and life, Doc concocts a plan to get revenge against Rodeo Rocky. First, Doc starts up a new publishing company. Instead of listing his own name as owner, though, he lists Blackie's. He also returns to songwriting. Since any song credited to Doc will automatically make Rodeo Rocky rich, he awards writing credits to Gilda (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria), a country singer discovered by Dino (Rip Torn, Payday), who happens to be Blackie's manager.
Songwriter was directed by Alan Rudolph, one of the most esoteric directors working today. His films range from the effective (Welcome to L.A.) to the intellectually stimulating (Choose Me) to the truly inexplicable (Endangered Species, Breakfast of Champions). Songwriter is his most accessible film, a film that works as both an entertaining revenge comedy and a study of human nature. We laugh and cheer as Doc begins his quest for revenge against the vile but dopey Rodeo Rocky. But we are also deeply moved during Doc's attempts at reconciling with one of his ex-wives. There is a lengthy set piece in the middle of the film when Doc returns home. The setup and payoff are beautifully handled in a way no one would expect them to be.
Although the emphasis on human nature is a key element of producer Sydney Pollack's work, Songwriter echoes the work of Rudolph's mentor, Robert Altman. Like Altman, Rudolph creates a mosaic of unique characters. As Altman did with his multi-character films, Rudolph loves them all. Even a villain such as Rodeo Rocky has decent qualities, even if they are masked by greed. The Altman technique of following different story threads at any given point is also present. It is difficult to pull off successfully, but Rudolph manages to do so.
Songwriter doesn't have a traditional or standard plot, no matter how predictable it sounds in the synopsis. There is no feeling that we can expect what will occur next. While in some films this is frustrating (The 5th Musketeer is a prime example), the approach works here. Of course, the fully drawn characterizations help. However, Rudolph's direction and the acting also help this approach work as well as it does.
One of the sad phenomena of modern cinema is when popular singers believe they can act since they conquered music. Examples include Britney Spears (whose performance in the dreadful Crossroads still gives me diarrhea to this day) and the countless third-rate rappers who populate such cinematic turds as Cutthroat Alley and The Playaz Court. However, that is not the case with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, the stars of Songwriter. Kristofferson has been impressive before in such different films as Heaven's Gate and Blume in Love, but the real surprise is Nelson. After a successful acting debut in the Pollack-produced Honeysuckle Rose, Nelson turned in a first-rate supporting performance in Michael Mann's Thief. In this, his second lead performance, Nelson reveals himself to be a gifted, subtle actor. He uses that low-key approach to suggest different feelings and moods, remembering the key notion that keeping the performance rooted in reality is far better than going over the top. One can sense some elements from his own life echoing in the performance -- a sign that his approach was successful. Rudolph regular Lesley Ann Warren is first rate as Gilda; she is a surprisingly good singer in addition to being an underrated actress. Rip Torn plays a variation of his standard crusty persona but does it so well I cannot complain. As Doc's ex-wife Honey, Melinda Dillon is sweetly effective. Considering that this role came shortly after her work in A Christmas Story, it is impressive to see how different yet successful each performance is. Another pleasant surprise is Richard C. Sarafian. Known primarily as a director, he creates a fully three-dimensional villain with real human qualities. It is an amazing performance that works when you don't expect it to.
Tying all this material together is the music. Over twelve songs, all penned by Nelson and Kristofferson, are showcased within the film. While Nelson and Kristofferson do not have the greatest voices in the world, are there two performers who have ever sung with more heart and feeling? They also generous, giving three of their best tunes to Lesley Ann Warren, who performs them with such authority and conviction that she could become a country singer if she chose to. Rudolph chooses a simplistic approach to staging and shooting the concert sequences, just allowing the camera to capture the bare essence. Utilizing fancy gimmicks and editing would have been a distraction; here the simple technique becomes art.
Columbia presents Songwriter in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Considering the shoddy treatment producer Pollack's Castle Keep received in its DVD debut, this transfer is already a considerable improvement, even though it is uneven in quality. There is a distinct softness that never goes away, resulting in a hazy image. Grain is often excessive during moments that should not be so foggy. There are many scratches and specks marring the image. I've seen public-domain discs with better transfers than this. The sole saving graces of the transfer are the widescreen transfer and the nice color correction done on the print. The colors are bold and lifelike. Too bad there isn't much else to say in the transfer's favor.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. This is the proper choice considering the amount of music in the film. This is truly a dynamic sound mix: The songs sound so bold and vibrant that you feel as if you're right there watching the concert along with the audience. The mix also holds up exceptionally well during the quieter moments. There are no imperfections present, and the tones adjust well between quiet and loud scenes. Crank up your stereo system and rock on.
There is no extra content other than theatrical trailers for other Columbia releases. Remaining true to form, Columbia offers no trailer for Songwriter.
Despite the surprisingly average video transfer, I still happily recommend picking up Songwriter as either a rental or a purchase. It is a skillful piece of filmmaking that works as both entertainment and character study. The performances all feel real and authentic, and the music is simply great. I could think of worse ways to spend your time than spending the night with Songwriter. It's a great film.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailers