As a songwriter, he is without parallel. As a guitarist and vocalist his warmth and eccentricity are instantly recognized. As a public figure, he’s always used his fame to stand up for underdogs and regular folks of all stripes. If there’s one thing Willie Nelson isn’t known for, it’s his acting.
To be fair, expecting Willie Nelson to deliver credible acting performances is like expecting John Wayne to play a good Othello. Their strength as a performer is so rooted in their persona, they can really only add variations and shades of the same character over and over again.
Part of it also that, geez, it’s WILLIE NELSON. You don’t get to write a million timeless songs, record a million albums, tour a million miles and be the closest thing to an actual Uncle Sam AND get to be a good actor too. That’s just gilding the lily.
Willie excels in roles where he basically plays Willie. And he does it best in “Honeysuckle Rose.”
At it’s heart the movie is a Saturday Matinee western, the sort Willie’s heroes Gene Autry or Roy Rogers would star in. Willie is the singing cowboy with a very large and chemically active bunch of sidekicks, roaming the west song by song. The stakes are never particularly high, because we know Willie is the hero and he’s going to win. But it’s fun to watch the hero go through the motions. The villain isn’t particularly evil, because, well, Willie is basically the villain of this movie too.
Willie plays Buck Bonham, country singer, nomad, family man. His old buddy/guitar player Slim Pickens retires and Willie hires Slim’s daughter (Amy Irving) to take her place. Willie and Amy are musically sympatico, and that leads to other more intimate dalliances that shatter his marriage and friendship. Eventually though, Willie is able to make amends, save his marriage, get back on Slim’s good side and put on the big musical jamboree at the end. In Willie’s world, everything begins and ends with songs. Music sends him out on the road, complicates his life, mends it, brings everyone back together.
If you’re looking for something bigger and more complex from Willie, you’ll have to listen to one of his albums. If you wanted to show someone just why Willie is important, why he’s the beloved performer and icon he is today, you show them “Honeysuckle Rose.”
The movie isn’t without it’s faults. It’s soapy and melodramatic. It leans a little too heavily on performances. Willie, for such a laid back guy, is a wooden actor. It’s the joy of performing though, the love of playing music with and for people that sells the movie. Music, and the way Willie engages the world most directly through it, is the real focus of this movie. We get an idea of who Willie, or in this case Buck Bonham, is, but we don’t KNOW who he is until we’ve seen him sing his life to a crowd of strangers.
That’s the central paradox in many performers lives, though. Singers might be strangers to us, and they may guard their private lives or even mislead us with stories, when they’re singing their songs, they’re baring all their vulnerabilities for us. Few people have been doing this longer, or better than Willie Nelson.
(Trivia: “On The Road Again” was written as a throwaway song to accompany travel montages in this movie. Jerry Weintraub, the producer, didn’t think anything of the song. It’s one of the songs most closely identified with Willie Nelson now, and more well known than the movie that birthed it.)