Film Comment Recommends: Songwriter
This article appeared in the February 10, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Songwriter (Alan Rudolph, 1984)
A rough and rowdy, shit-kicking, brothers-in-arms comedy, Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter follows, or ambles after, the dreams and schemes of Doc Jenkins, played by an upbeat Willie Nelson as a thinly veiled version of himself. Doc, a massively successful songwriter and performer, has been used and abused by the music industry and finds himself down on his luck. With help from his former singing partner Blackie Buck (Kris Kristofferson, also playing a thinly veiled version of himself, down to the alliteration) he seeks revenge on the corporate gangsters who got rich exploiting his significant talents. Along the way, he picks up a protégé (Lesley Ann Warren), and joins forces with a dirtbag promoter played by a typically unhinged Rip Torn (who is first seen barking at his wife and baby the immortal line: “I wish the vision of how beautiful you are could be painted on the Great Wall of China”).
Any understanding of the plot is more or less inconsequential. The real draws here are the frequent musical interludes, the magnetism of the two leads, and the film’s incongruously lush color palette. Neon green and pink light reflects off tour-bus windows, leaks out of open doors, and beams through the stained-glass windows that seem to be a feature of every indoor space in Austin, Texas, where the bulk of the film takes place. Like his mentor Robert Altman, Rudolph packs every scene with little narrative cul-de-sacs and minor but richly detailed characters, like Doc’s lovelorn assistant and Blackie’s Camus-quoting lead guitarist. Though the normally reliably soulful Nelson and Kristofferson are both a little wooden, their musical performances pick up the slack, while Warren’s nuanced turn as an alcoholic rising star is surprisingly moving, a jolt of real pain in a candy-colored country-music madhouse.