After displaying a naturalistic screen presence in his movie debut, Sydney Pollack’s romantic drama The Electric Horseman (1978), country singer Willie Nelson was given a custom-made leading role in another romantic drama, Honeysuckle Rose, which Pollack produced but did not direct. Once again, Nelson proved he was comfortable on camera, though the role of an easygoing, pot-smoking troubadour did not require him to stretch. The film surrounding Nelson is so frustrating that the best thing to come out of this project was a classic song. “On the Road Again” became a huge crossover hit, earning a Grammy award and an Oscar nomination. Some scenes in Honeysuckle Rose capture the joy of that tune, but those bits are almost always tangential to the main plot, which is trite and unseemly. The movie also suffers for the questionable casting of its two major female roles.
Nelson plays Buck Bonham, a longhaired Texas singer-songwriter on the verge of achieving national stardom after years of being a regional favorite. (Sound familiar?) Buck is married to sexy blonde Viv (Dyan Cannon), a former singer who gave up life on the road to raise Jamie (Joey Floyd), her son with Buck. Now firmly entrenched in middle age, she’s lost her patience with Buck’s endless declarations that “one of these days” he’ll slow down his touring to spend more time on the Bonham’s sprawling Texas ranch. When Buck’s longtime guitarist, Garland Ramsey (Slim Pickens), announces his retirement, Buck scrambles for a replacement, and Viv unwisely suggests that Buck hire Garland’s seductive 22-year-old daughter, Lily (Amy Irving). To absolutely no one’s surprise, Buck and Lily become lovers on the road, causing friction in the Bonham marriage and damaging Buck’s friendship with Garland.
There are maybe 80 minutes of real story in Honeysuckle Rose, but the movie drags on for a full two hours. The bloat stems partially from extended performance scenes, but also from such discursions as an endless family-reunion scene and snippets of life on a tour bus. Director Jerry Schtazberg shoots all this stuff beautifully, applying a photographer’s keen eye to scenes that feel casual and spontaneous, but he can’t muster similar creativity for romantic scenes. Nelson’s low-key vibe creates an inherent energy deficiency, and the fact that neither Cannon nor Irving seem remotely believable as Texans introduces falseness into a movie that otherwise boasts plentiful authenticity. Nonetheless, Honeysuckle Rose has its pleasures. Emmylou Harris shows up to sing a number with Nelson, and it’s a treat to see Pickens playing a straight dramatic character. The scenes in which he and Nelson simulate drunken revels are particularly enjoyable.
Honeysuckle Rose: FUNKY