Instead of checking out the club scene during Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival in March, I stayed home and watched movies about music, searching for an authentic Texas classic. I didn't find one. What I did discover, however, was a set of rules that I offer free to the next director who ventures into the sub-subgenre of films about Texas music.
Rule 1. Get a talented actor to play the musician. Or, at the very least, get an actor. Good actors can sing, but good musicians can't act. Now, there are a few exceptions, but Willie Nelson ain't one of them. Like Dolly Parton, he has the onscreen sensitivity of impervious ground cover. By contrast, Gary Busey plays a great Buddy Holly, Robert Duvall sings better in Tender Mercies than plenty of professionals, and Rip Torn's performance in Payday is the best portrayal of a country road warrior I have seen.
Rule 2. Play good songs. In Payday Torn performs only one song, but it's a honey. "Country Girl," written by Shel Silverstein, is corny, twangy, and authentic. Songwriter, which people keep telling me is a good film about The Industry but isn't, contains a number of strong songs written by Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
Rule 3. If a song must be played more than once, it had better be good. Honeysuckle Rose features "On the Road Again," the Willie trademark that I happen to despise, though I yield to the majority across the fruited plain who absolutely love it. The worst offender is "Outlaw Blues," a John Oates ditty that is played 473 times in a film of the same title starring Peter Fonda. In his memoir, Fonda, who can be forgiven anything for siring Bridget, said he hated the song.
Rule 4. Keep smoking materials off the set. And mushrooms. Fonda told how the crew of Outlaw Blues ate 'shrooms growing in cow patties near a prison in Huntsville. The flaws in most of these films can be traced to sustained off-camera substance abuse. (Otherwise, you'd have to chalk it up to stupidity, and I want to be charitable.)
Music aside, these films offer incidental pleasures. Outlaw Blues depicts a vanished city that many longtime Austinites miss. Shot on location in 1976, it gives us Steve Fromholz before he became eligible for the seniors breakfast at IHOP and glimpses of departed glories such as the Alamo Hotel and Soap Creek Saloon. But the deeper you go into the subject of movies, the rockier it gets. There's Roadie, for example, but it features a person named Meat Loaf. And there's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but it stars that zaftig chunk of granite named Dolly Parton. Next time around, I think I'll go downtown and catch the shows.