A slight change in direction from Clint (following the even bigger change of direction that was Firefox), here he plays country singer Red Stovall in this thirties set Great Depression drama Honkytonk Man. The inspiration behind this film was the country legend Hank Williams. Williams defined a generation of country music pre-dating rock and roll and is as famous for his hard drinking (which eventually killed him in 1953) as he is for his woeful crying toons. Williams was responsible for such classic tunes as ‘Jambalaya’, ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ and ‘I’m So Lonsesome I Could Cry’. But this is not a biopic of Hank Williams, but Eastwood merely uses him as an inspiration for his drama. As already mentioned it is set in the mid-West during the Great Depression. At the core of this story is, of course Eastwood as Red Stovall and his relationship with his 14-year-old nephew, Whit in a coming of age drama. Red is dreaming of the day he can play at the Grand Ole Oprey in Nashville, Tennessee where he plans to put a song to acetate and travels through Oklahoma to fulfill his dreams of the stardom that has always eluded him. On the journey with him is his young nephew (played by Eastwood’s own son, Kyle) who grows up along the way, enduring many adventures and life affirming dramas. The trouble is that Red is suffering from tuberculosis fuelled by a lifetime of drinking whiskey and smoking. When Red finally succumbs to his tuberculosis Whit makes a promise that Red’s story will be written down.
Both directed and produced by Eastwood for Warner Brothers and Malpaso, Honkytonk Man was written by Clancy Carlile from his own novel and the result is at times patchy and overlong, although it is never the less also strangely compelling throughout. Where it fails to convince is Eastwood as a country singer, no matter how many times he has sung in films from the musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) to singing the end theme to Gran Torino (2008). Notably, however, this was also the last film appearance of Marty Robbins (he of ‘El Paso’ fame) who also sang and recorded the song ‘Honkytonk Man’ and died of a heart attack weeks before the film was released. Here Eastwood is not quite as grizzled as he would later become in such films as the latter mentioned one. The mid-Western settings add atmosphere and the landscapes seem to reflect Stovall’s loneliness (it was actually filmed in California and not Oklahoma and Tennessee), although as a period set film it doesn’t work as well as such films as say Ryan and Tatum O’Neal in that other Depression era set family-strife road film, Paper Moon (1973), which is a good deal more accomplished and successful in portraying the era and familial relationships; nor does it portray the hardships of the era to the same extent as Walker Evans’ photographs or John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (and for that matter John Ford’s film of the same title). Eastwood may have done better in directing the film rather than also acting in it; maybe another example of spreading himself too thinly across the production. As can be witnessed throughout Eastwood’s oeuvre, this of course is not always the case. It ambles along at a moderate pace as the film attempts to study Red’s character and his relationship to people, the world and in particular to his nephew; finally at last this sensitive individual is able to relate to another soul. Like many a nostalgic film, Honkytonk Man uses the lesser character (Whit) to analyze the more complex character (Red), with no room in any shape or form for the young Kyle Eastwood to steal the show.
Eastwood himself has a guilty pleasure in music that has come across in a few of his films (as the late night DJ in Play Misty For Me), not least of all in Bird, the epic biopic drama he made about Charlie Parker in 1988. This was even passed on to the young Kyle who later went on to become a musician himself. Eastwood’s film is decent enough as a character study and is a slow burner that will have its fans, but won’t really appeal to Clint’s action fans.