Posted in: Film Reviews, Musicals

Review: Honeysuckle Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Honeysuckle Rose is apparently so sure of its audience that it isn’t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether you’re one of this popular singer’s fans, you can’t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if that’s not too strong a word) during someone’s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainer’s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friend’s something-or-other). Willie can’t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friend’s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rose can cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the film—chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasn’t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesn’t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movie’s big emotional scenes.

Director Jerry Schatzberg tries to give the whole thing a spontaneous, improvised look, but the results are just the opposite. The emphasis on concerts contributes to a documentary quality, but often the action is edited in a fashion that gives us two or three sequences of events scrambled together in an attempt to conceal the pointlessness and/or dullness of a given set of shots. The shabbiness of the movie’s intentions is revealed in a scene which presumes to contrast the Nelson character’s unpretentious, down-home authenticity with the commercialized rhinestone glitter of a stud-guitarist played by Mickey Rooney Jr. (a Robert Redford–electric cowboy lookalike). This showbiz cowboy’s costume is portrayed as a sign of his moral inferiority, but the distinction is rather obnoxious given Nelson’s equally artificial tendency to dress himself as the weatherbeaten Texas hippie. Indeed, Nelson’s “image” may suffer more than it gains from Honeysuckle Rose. The “false” Rooney seems much more genuinely self-possessed than the “natural” Nelson; the nonprofessional Cannon’s singing seems much more whole, “spiritually,” than the wily old professional’s. Moreover, the part of the film that is a secret documentary on the tension in Willie Nelson’s eyes and upper body reveals something quite apart from the image of the laidback country boy.

As it happens, much of what is most interesting in Honeysuckle Rose seems to be there by accident: in their duet of “Lovin’ You Was Easier,” Cannon’s effortless screen presence puts Willie hopelessly on the defensive; when Willie leaps off a sand dune to tackle Pickens, bowlegged Slim sheds him like water off the proverbial duck’s back (but has the professional courtesy to fall down anyway); when Willie spatters Dyan with homemade ice cream (in a moment that looks too much like planned spontaneity), the scene suddenly becomes a minidocumentary on the embarrassment of performers who don’t really believe in a bit of business that’s been thrown their way.

© 1981 Peter Hogue

Direction: Jerry Schatzberg. Screenplay: Carol Sobieski, William D. Wittliff and John Binder, after a screen story (Intermezzo) by Gösta Steven and Gustav Molander. Cinematography: Robbie Müller. Songs: Willie Nelson &c. Executive producer: Sydney Pollack.
The players: Willie Nelson, Dyan Cannon, Amy Irving, Slim Pickens, Charles Levin, Pepe Serna, Priscilla Pointer, Joey Floyd, Lane Smith, Mickey Rooney Jr., Emmylou Harris.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.