My most vivid memory of when Urban Cowboy played in theaters in the summer of 1980…is not seeing Urban Cowboy when it played in theaters in the summer of 1980. (This is going to require a long-winded explanation, now that I think about it.) It was the transition period between my junior and senior year at my alma mater, Ravenswood
Billy has many admirers, but our quartet was not among them at the time we screened it. (I believe the consensus among my comrades went along the lines of “It stinks!”) Three of the members in our group laid the blame squarely on my shoulders because I apparently persuaded them to see Billy over Urban Cowboy. I maintain to this day that I am not responsible; yes, I did want to see Bronco Billy (I had listened to both the Billy and Cowboy soundtrack albums and thought the music in Billy was a better representative of country music) but I didn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head and force them to accompany me—furthermore, if my powers of persuasion were truly that potent, we’d be counting the days until President-elect Bernie Sanders takes office. (That’s a Facebook joke, son.)
Mostly because I tend to remember these three films (along with 9 to 5, Any Which Way You Can, and several others) as Hollywood’s cashing-in on a public fascination with country music in the early 80s. The Powers That Be referred to this as “the Urban Cowboy craze” …but truth be told, it went back further than that—with the box office success of Every Which Way But Loose (1978), which generated several hit singles for the likes of Charlie Rich, Mel Tillis, and Eddie Rabbitt (his title track went to #1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and cracked the Pop Top 30). (You can even make a strong argument that it goes back to several films from the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings , Smokey and the Bandit , etc.)
One of those members, guitarist Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens), has told Buck he’s quitting “the road” (at the request of his wife) and so Buck and his manager Sid (Charles Levin) scramble to find a replacement.
In fact, it’s Viv who recommends Lily join her husband’s musical aggregation (Garland isn’t sold on the idea…but relents when he realizes that it’s only temporary), and this helpful suggestion will come back to bite her in the derriere when Buck and Lily move beyond an innocent mentor-protégé relationship into a tongue-wagging romantic one.
And to be forthright about this, the first time I saw Rose I didn’t care for the movie (I didn’t see this one in theaters—more likely I caught it on HBO). But I spotted it on the schedule of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ a month or so back, and I thought that a second look might change my opinion. I couldn’t warm up to it the first time around because it’s a character-driven film (I was all about cleverly-plotted movies at that point in my cinematic education) and I thought with maturity, maybe it plays a little better. (Don’t think I can’t hear you snickering out there.)
Honeysuckle Rose is not as bad as I remembered, but I remain unconvinced it hasn’t been overrated by a lot of critics. The Los Angeles Times succinctly summed up Rose as “a concert film with a plot.” The music in Honeysuckle Rose is undeniably its greatest strength; the movie’s soundtrack album shot to the top of Billboard’s Top Country Albums (#11 on the Top 200 Albums) and generated two country chart-toppers for Willie Nelson, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground and On the Road Again. (The Grammy Award-winning On the Road Again also reached #20 on the Hot 100 and would later be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Original Song.) The album is mostly a collection of performances by Willie & Family (with additional contributions from folks like Johnny Gimble, Hank Cochran, and “Heaven is a girl named” Emmylou Harris) reprising past Nelson triumphs like Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Whiskey River, and If You Could Touch Her at All.
(Pollack was executive producer on Rose, and later served as a producer on the Nelson-Kris Kristofferson collaboration Songwriter, released in 1986.) In a case of life imitating art, Willie had an affair with co-star Amy Irving during the making of Rose (something that I’m sure went over big with Mrs. Willie). Nelson demonstrates a commanding onscreen presence in the film (his second feature, and first starring role) and even though his character lets Little Willie do the thinking of Big Willie, Buck Bonham is a sympathetic figure (the filmmakers also resist the temptation to whitewash what Buck has done, instead allowing the audience decide if Nelson’s charisma is sufficient absolution for the sins in his marriage). Willie would later star in the underrated oater Barbarosa (1982), yet I’ll come clean by admitting that I think Nelson is more effective in smaller, supporting turns—whether it be a standout performance as a convict in 1981’s Thief or country singer “Johnny Dean” in the satirical Wag the Dog (1997).
Dyan Cannon’s Viv is a little too quick to forgive her husband’s infidelities (a strong woman as portrayed by Viv is would more than likely kick that cheatin’ bastid to the curb); everything is kiss-and-make-up okay once they sing a duet together before the movie’s closing credits. Granted, Amy Irving’s Lily is not played for major villainy…but the last that we see of her in Rose is in the audience, forlornly looking on at a performance that is part of a celebratory picnic held in Garland’s honor. Being ostracized from Buck and the rest of “the family” at this point seems to suggest that she’s being held responsible for whatever events took place, and that didn’t sit well with me at all. To add insult to injury, Irving received a “Razzie” as Worst Supporting Actress for her work in Rose at the inaugural Golden Raspberry Award ceremonies in 1981…and she’s not terrible at all. (I like the scene where Irving confronts father Pickens over what she’s done…and in a long shot, Slim walks away from her in disapproval before taking a beat and walking back to hug her in support.) Both actresses did their own singing on the film’s soundtrack, and there’s no need to admonish them not to quit their day jobs.
For country music fans, there are wonderful moments contributed by both Harris and Cochran, who performs a snatch of the Cochran-penned Make the World Go Away with real-life wife Jeannie Seely. Rose was also the second feature film for Diana Scarwid (I saw her debut, Pretty Baby  a few weeks ago) …and I kind of wish I had been living in Savannah at the time of Rose’s release because I know the newspaper ads would have touted it as “Featuring Savannah’s own Diana Scarwid” like they did with other Scarwid vehicles (Rumble Fish, Silkwood, etc.). The actor who plays the musician replacing Pickens’ character is none other than Mickey Rooney, Jr…who’s every bit as obnoxious as his old man (though in fairness, the character is written that way) playing a guy who looks like the love child of Porter Wagoner and Alan Jackson.
For those of you wanting to know what “Honeysuckle Rose” has to do with the film, the [always reliable] IMDb says it’s the nickname of Willie Nelson’s real-life tour bus. (So if you were expecting The Red Headed Stranger to do a version of the Fats Waller standard during the film’s running time…sorry to disappoint you.)