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Honeysuckle Rose

Of all the popular singers who have become movie stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Cher), the unlikeliest of all is probably Willie Nelson. A long-haired, pot-smoking country singer with a music career stretching back to the mid-1950s, Nelson made his film debut in a supporting role opposite Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in The Electric Horseman (1979), singing five of the film's songs.

That picture's director, Sydney Pollack, obviously saw something special in the diminutive 46-year-old. He decided to build a movie he was producing around Nelson's persona and music, and cast him as the lead--a romantic lead, no less. In Honeysuckle Rose, Nelson plays a hard-living country star who is frequently "On the Road Again" (the debut for his most iconic song) much to the consternation of his loyal, long-suffering wife (Dyan Cannon). After one of his band members quits, Buck Bonham (Nelson) hires the musician's pretty young daughter (Amy Irving), and romantic complications ensue.

In an even more unlikely twist, the film is loosely based on a romantic melodrama set in the world of classical music, Intermezzo: a Love Story (1939), in which married concert violinist Leslie Howard has an illicit affair on tour with pianist Ingrid Bergman (her Hollywood debut in a remake of her 1936 Swedish hit). That would explain why the down-home, all-American Nelson picture carries story credits for Gustaf Molander and Gosta Stevens.

The film was directed not by Pollack but by Jerry Schatzberg, who had just directed Meryl Streep and Alan Alda to acclaimed performances in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979). Although Honeysuckle Rose did fine at the box office, Schatzberg was not so lucky critically with this one bringing Irving an unfortunate Golden Raspberry (aka Razzie) Award for Worst Supporting Actress. The picture itself did not receive any other "worst" nominations; bad musicals were already well represented that year by Can't Stop the Music and Xanadu.

Which is not to say this picture is "bad." In fact, it has been dubbed the Purple Rain of country music. While acknowledging a certain "edge of disappointment" coming off the movie, critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the cheeriest, brightest looking movies I've ever seen" and praised Schatzberg for using "an easy-going documentary style to show us life on the band bus, at a family reunion and backstage at big concerts."

Nelson fared well with the soundtrack, performing more than a dozen of his self-composed songs. "On the Road Again" was his sixth #1 hit as a solo performer and his ninth #1 country hit overall. It was also an Academy Award Best Song nominee and winner of the Grammy for Best Country Song. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #471 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, and in 2011 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The 1928 Fats Waller jazz classic that gives the film its title, however, was not included in the picture. "Honeysuckle Rose" here is simply the name of Nelson's tour bus. Irving and Cannon did their own singing. Emmylou Harris appears as herself, singing "Angel Eyes" and "So You Think You're a Cowboy" with Nelson.

Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Producer: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: John Binder, Carol Sobieski, William D. Wittliff; story by Gustaf Molander and Gosta Stevens
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Editing: Aram Avakian, Norman Gay, Marc Laub, Evan A. Lottman
Production Design: Joel Schiller
Music: Richard Baskin, Willie Nelson
Cast: Willie Nelson (Buck Bonham), Dyan Cannon (Viv Bonham), Amy Irving (Lily Ramsey), Slim Pickens (Garland Ramsey), Joey Floyd (Jamie Bonham)

By Rob Nixon

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