Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ode to Billy Joe (1976)

          A thoughtful drama adapted from country singer Bobby Gentry’s 1967 song of the same name, Ode to Billy Joe has a great first hour before it unravels. So even though viewers are given a plausible explanation for why the song’s tragic protagonist, Billy Joe McAllister, jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge—the mystery that made Gentry’s song a pop-culture phenomenon—muddy storytelling dilutes an otherwise poignant experience.
          Producer-director Max Baer and screenwriter Herman Raucher build their story around Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynis O’Connor), a precocious teenager living in rural Mississippi circa 1953. Bobbie Lee is filled with curiosity about romance and sex, but her parents won’t let her date until she’s 16. Meanwhile, Bobbie Lee’s childhood friend, the slightly older Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson), is feeling hormonal surges of his own, so he courts Bobbie Lee relentlessly while still respecting her boundaries. The flirting scenes in particular are filled with entertainingly ornate dialogue: “I think I’m either adopted or depraved,” O’Connor remarks at one point. “Of the two, I prefer depraved.” (Even such minor characters as Bobbie Lee’s mother get atmospheric lines: “Mosquitoes always did take to you on in the thick heat,” Mom says.)
          Baer, who played Jethro on the ’60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, displays a sensitive feel for the rhythms of Southern life, so his storytelling thrives during quiet scenes. Alas, it falters elsewhere. Most problematically, Baer introduces a major plot element without sufficient clarity, making the next 20 minutes of the picture frustratingly cryptic in a manner that’s out of step with what came before. (It should also be noted that the movies big reveal, while appropriate to the period of the story, has not aged well.) The presence of these narrative flaws is a shame, because so many things in the movie are worth watching. O’Connor is terrific, a spitfire bristling against constricting social expectations, and Benson adds dark dimensions to his patented puppy-dog persona. Joan Hotchkis and Sandy McPeak are authentic and warm as Bobby Lee’s parents, with Hotchkis radiating maternal understanding and McPeak wearing male pride with dignity. Rounding out the family, Terence Goodman is solid as Bobbie Lee’s testosterone-crazed older brother.
          Composer Michel Legrand provides a mournful score that evokes the arrangement of Gentry’s song for stylistic unity (half the song plays over the opening credits, setting up the story, and half plays at the end, tying up loose ends). On the visual front, cinematographer Michael Hugo makes the most of authentic locations like the decrepit span used for the Tallahatchie Bridge. So even with its flaws, Ode to Billy Joe is praiseworthy for its heady mixture of atmosphere, sensitivity, and tragedy.

Ode to Billy Joe: FUNKY

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