Review: Honeysuckle Rose

Here’s a contemporaneous review of a movie little remembered now, but as it chanced, the film marked the late Robby Müller’s first encounter with the American land and its light. —RTJ

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 23, 1980]

Honeysuckle Rose is the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg, a modestly intelligent filmmaker who specializes in probing the esoteric fringes of the U.S. scene, locating sources of peculiar vitality and distinctiveness, and then watching contentment bleed away. Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), starring Schatzberg’s former lover Faye Dunaway, studied the neuroses of a high-fashion model; Panic in Needle Park (1971), which introduced Al Pacino to the screen, dealt with the lifestyle of druggies; Scarecrow (1973) hit the road with a couple of bums (Pacino and Gene Hackman), Sweet Revenge (1977) sampled the criminal career of a car freak, and last year’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan forsook the fringe areas for the no-less-esoteric center of things, the private life—and private side of the public life—of a U.S. Senator.

Honeysuckle Rose hitches a monthlong ride with a middleaged country-western singer-musician-composer named Buck Bonham (Willie Nelson), who drolly allows as how he and his band are going to break into the really big time any day now, “on accounta we’re about the only ones they haven’t got around to yet.” Making It Big isn’t even a sideline concern of the film’s, though. Buck already appears eminently popular on the Southwest concert circuit and no one is hurting for money. The big problem—quiet, insistent, constant—is Buck’s inability to work out a life formula that will satisfy his manly need for rootlessness and his family’s (wife and son) desire to have him around the home more often.

Shortly after the movie gets underway, Buck’s old partner and chief guitar backup Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens) announces they have to get a deevorce at the end of this trip so he can settle down with his loving wife and his tractor. A brief between-tours stopover in the home community sees Garland detached from the band and his daughter Lily (Amy Irving) signed on in his stead. The idea is that she will fill in for three weeks until another stellar guitarist becomes available; but before long, she and Buck—who has told his wife Viv (Dyan Cannon) that he sleeps alone on the road—are making beautiful music together, and the rapport of the band is sorely strained.

A credit line on the movie indicates that the script is “based on the story by Gösta Stevens and Gustav Molander” (Molander being a director himself, one wonders whether there’s an unimported Svenskfilmindustri equivalent of Honeysuckle Rose somewhere in the past—and what a Swedish equivalent of country-western music touring would be). Yet the situation, the emotions, the issues are so familiar, one is mystified how the story could be considered anything but public-domain. There are no—but no—surprises here. Indeed, as Viv remarks during a nicely managed public confrontation scene with the lovers, “Isn’t this what country music is all about?”

It is, and that, plus the up-front need to supply a suitable starring vehicle for Willie Nelson, is the informing logic of the film. There is a minor character in the dramatis personae, Sid (Charles Levin), Buck’s improbably Eastern-Jewish road manager, who is given to self-authentication by buying colorfully Western hats and deadpanning his intention to join the group someday and pick and sing along with the rest of the boys. It’s hard not to see this character as an extension of Schatzberg himself—traveling along with and fondly indulged by the band, loving the warmth and unpretentiousness of the community, yet remaining an infatuated outsider. One learns nothing new from the film. Even its pleasures are easily anticipated, and arrive as confirmations of expectation.

But its pleasures are steady and genuine, never more so than when Nelson and Cannon get together on a picnic love-in duet of “Lovin’ You Is Easier Than Anything I Ever Did Before,” or daddy Slim Pickens heads off to Mexico with a pistol and a bottle of tequila to chastise his old partner in their hideaway of years gone by. You can rail against the calculation and surefireness of it all, or you can just accept it and glory in the privileged spectacle of Pickens, beer belly hung over his belt buckle, ambling up to an airport information desk, or wheezing “I’m gittin’ too old for this shit” as he chases Nelson up and down sand dunes. It’s a pleasant-people movie, and if that, too, seems to be something it’s getting rather too easy to settle for, it still beats the bejesus out of car-wrecking movies.

One of the pleasant people who matters most here remains offscreen: Wim Wenders’s ace cameraman Robby Müller. Schatzberg usually makes it a point to have a distinguished cinematographer on his team (he works more through textures than through any compositional particularity of mise-en-scène), and Müller is the film’s most sensitive intermediary for the translation of the clichés. In the opening scene, for instance, Buck and Sid get to walk over a field toward the band bus, parked at the side of a meadow, as the sun rises over a low hill and a pickup truck rattles by at just the right moment. It’s a country-western poster image, yet this German cinematographer so sensitive to the mutuality of lives and landscapes renders it as something more. There’s no trendy lens flare to call attention to the opportunistic camera, neither is there a polarized Kodachrome crispness to the scene—just a suffusion of quiet auspiciousness, a palpable commingling of sun-warmth and cold dew, a response to the beauty of an exotic yet everyday moment as spontaneous as smiling at a breath of morning-fresh air. If the direction had been up to that level of response, Honeysuckle Rose might have been a marvelous film. As things stand, it will do. It gives no offense—but there is much room for it to have been more.

2012 afterword: It seems likely that that Stevens-Molander screenplay was nothing less than Intermezzo, which became an Ingrid Bergman vehicle twice, in 1936 and in 1939, on first one side of the Atlantic and then the other.

Copyright © 1980 by Richard T. Jameson


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