September 12, 2019
t’s not Willie Nelson, the lead of Honeysuckle Rose (1980), who makes the big impression on us. Such a task is delegated to Dyan Cannon, his co-star. Nelson is good in the movie, and, like other musical artists trying to evince that they’re a double-threat, whether it be Frank Sinatra or Justin Timberlake, he seems comfortable in front of the camera, and can reasonably carry a movie on his thinly muscled back. And his style of acting
is, in a Robert Redfordian twist, so subtle that you don’t often sense he’s acting. Is he riffing? Like his music, Nelson's work in Honeysuckle Rose has a simultaneously open and reticent vulnerability. Is he telling us everything or nothing about himself? His character in the movie is pseudo-biographical: a country star named Buck Bonham who tours so incessantly that it becomes clear, after a while, that he’s probably not promoting anything but rather distracting himself from something or other we’ll probably never quite understand.
But Cannon, who plays his leonine and plain-spoken wife Viv, gets us to care more about her character. She lives with her and Buck’s son in a country bungalow; Buck is there so rarely that when he returns for a night and sings a song and starts a food fight in the kitchen slash dining room area early in the feature, he’s treated as something of a special guest — a stranger in his own home. Viv is an embodiment of the long-suffering wife trope, but Cannon makes the role more interesting than the feature really allows it to be. Her wry and sometimes-bravura performance allows her to be a magnetically contradictory woman: self-aware but deep-seatedly vulnerable; blunt but tender; without guiles but confined to a life she wishes weren’t hers. The character moves us because Cannon conveys exactly what we think we know about Viv — that she too is constantly thinking about the long-suffering wife cliché and is on the verge of losing her marbles at the thought that she’s in many ways living it.
Cannon is in Honeysuckle Rose a lot less than I’d like her to be — an indicator that when the movie was being written (by five people, say online factoids), either the people putting thoughts on the page weren’t aware that Cannon would chow down on the part like a golden retriever feasting on crispy kibble or that the requisitely uninteresting wife part would in fact be interesting here.
Cannon is also a living paean to what the movie could be. What Honeysuckle Rose, as directed by the photographer turned filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg, wants to be is a gloriously alive musical drama about life on the road. (Emphasis on the gloriously alive bit.) Maybe something to rival the burning-hot The Rose (1979), that wonderful rock opera based on the itinerant life of Janis Joplin, just without the obligatorily tragic finale.
But Honeysuckle Rose is a movie that knows more about getting from point to point than it does about wringing out the emotions that flare up while getting to those points. It doesn't breathe. The movie has the elements we expect it to have: chaotic backstage hijinks, an on-the-road affair courtesy of Buck (and the Amy Irving-portrayed daughter of his old guitarist, who’s played by Slim Pickens), fights and then resolutions between Buck and Viv, designed-to-be-stirring live performances, and tender-hearted moments meant to remind us that as fun as life in the fast lane can be, you can't stay there forever. Watching the movie, though, you sense that while Schatzberg and his writers knew how the film must look, and what it must narratively contain to make for an at-least efficient backstage-cum-road drama, they have little notion of how to get us emotionally attached to any of it. There’s an oblique hint that the music, paired with the images of seeing Nelson, Irving, and other musicians-actors bring it to our ears, is supposed to get us there.
But that’s done faultily. Rather than allow us to feel like we’re sweating with and getting nearly trampled by other members of an arena audience, pulling us into a song with immediacy, Schatzberg has a habit of cutting away to backstage theatrics during live renditions or using a concert's audio as background music for scenes that play in the interim. There’s a confusing, concurrent emphasis and de-emphasis on the music. We’re meant to put our full attention on it but also hear it secondarily. The good thing is that the music’s persuasiveness, whether it’s central or ancillary, can’t be denied. Nelson’s “On the Road Again” is as perennial here as “Call Me” by Blondie was in 1980’s American Gigolo. I never got tired of hearing it — a surprise given that if the song were to come up on my Spotify shuffle any other time, these days I’d almost certainly hit next.
The weakest parts of Honeysuckle Rose are Irving and the subplot in which she's involved. It isn’t so much that Irving, who’s almost always sympathetic and alert in her best roles (her collaborations with Brian De Palma are testaments to her earthy charisma), is bad. She’s miscast. She has a convincing voice — a relief since that's usually what typically non-musical actors don't have — but her too-saucer-eyed performance fosters the flimsiness of the writing. The truckload of screenwriters knows Irving’s and Nelson’s affair is narratively vital: it’s a representation of what I think the movie wants to be its thesis statement — that Buck’s addiction to the road and its perks are taking away from him the things in life that “count.” But this underbelly of the storyline’s half-invested in, and Nelson and Irving don’t have chemistry. There’s also a creepiness to the illicit romance that the feature doesn’t seem to notice: when Irving says she’s been listening to Buck since she was 9 years old, it’s supposed to be a touching come-on when really it’s a reminder of just how young the barely college-aged character is in comparison to the grizzled Buck.
Cannon is so excellent in the movie that she at least gives the affair subplot some charge. Near the end of the film, Nelson and Irving have an intimate moment on stage. It's essentially the sort of thing where a couple of singers share a mic and seem ready to share a kiss, though in these characters’ case, they actually do. Cannon’s character, who’s anxiously waiting backstage, catches wind of the blot of infidelity and casually walks out into the spotlight at the end of the song. She goes on and on about how thankful she is about the people accompanying her husband — sort of like a hype-woman who‘s going through the motions so she can make a quick trip to the grocery store afterward earlier than she'd planned. Then, in a verbal plot twist that made me cheer, she goes, “I would like to announce our divorce.” It’s a delicious bookend to an arm of the main narrative I loved, and also made me think that maybe watching Cannon in this movie is enough to make up for the truth that’s it’s gauzy and thin in basically every other place.
Still, you can’t help but like the movie. It’s predictably a baseline good time tromping around buses and cities and restaurants with this fictional Nelson. And the promise of seeing Cannon return after some time away in the film is almost as good a thing as watching her. In the earlier portion of her career the media often had a difficult time figuring out what to make of her: she was a sex symbol, sure, but were we to also take her seriously? (A dumb, sexist concern, if you ask me.) Cannon was so consistently delectable in mostly everything she was in that it became evident that she wasn’t just a uniformly great actress — she was so in control of her assets that most directors didn’t know how to use her quite right. The role she has in Honeysuckle Rose isn’t nearly big enough, but you can tell Schatzberg understands how pulsating and animated she is. When she appears, the movie seems infinitely better than it is, and he emphasizes that. I’d like to see a movie not focused on the contrast between Buck’s affair and his marriage but instead just on the marriage. Cannon has that effect. B-