Eastwood report: Honkytonk Man

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Honkytonk Man makes a nice companion piece to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both tell stories about musicians making their way across the Depression-era South on their way to an important appointment, both are weak on plot yet high in thematically-resonant incident, both endeavor to reveal the character of a nation through an examination its music, and both feature 11th-hour graveside Negros who spontaneously burst into spirituals. The Depression-era South of Honkytonk Man is about 85% less kooky than the one in O Brother and its narrative aims to be about 75% quieter. Like many Eastwood movies, it ambles along at its unhurried pace as it scrutinizes its title character.

Eastwood, ever the gentleman, hands over protagonist duties to his son Kyle, who plays Whit, a teenage boy who is drafted by Eastwood’s character, Red Stovall, a broken-down country singer, to drive him cross-country from Oklahoma to Nashville, where Red is due to audition for the Grand Ole Opry — if his TB and his whiskey don’t kill him first. Whit, fixin’ to become a singing star himself, sees Red’s goal as his own — if he gets Red to that audition, Red’s troubles will be over, and then maybe his own troubles will be over too.

The structure could not be simpler: Act I is: Red shows up and drafts Whit to drive him to Nashville. Act II is: they drive to Nashville, and many adventures ensue. Act III is: they get to Nashville and meet their destinies. That much "plot" would fill up any given ten minutes of O Brother, where the Soggy Bottom Boys can record a song on Tuesday and be country-wide sensations by Thursday.

Although Whit is the protagonist, Red is by far the most interesting character, and in keeping with my Grand Unifying Theory of Eastwood, I’m going to say that Red is "Clint Eastwood" if "Clint Eastwood" had been a musician instead of a gunfighter. All of the Eastwood qualities are present in Red: a general dislike of people, a desire to keep to himself and continuously move on, an insistence on self-reliance in himself and others, an aversion to authority and That One Thing He’s Good At that somehow keeps him going through his regrets and isolation. In Red’s case, That One Thing is singing and playing the guitar.

Red fascinates Whit, and the movie does a good job in keeping us interested as well. Eastwood obviously is a great lover of music, and with Red he’s got the opportunity to sing without needing to explain why someone with a totally unsuitable voice would bother going into the business. Red’s reedy, hesitant, off-key delivery can be explained by his alcoholism and TB, although why the country-music establishment would be interested in his barely-whispered vocals is something of a mystery. There’s a scene late in the movie where Red is too unwell to finish his big number and a real, honest-to-God country-music star comes in to rescue him and the difference is dramatic.

Incidents related in Act II: Red has a run-in with a bull, Whit’s grandfather (along for the trip) tells Whit about his participation in the 1893 Oklahoma land rush, Red takes Whit to a cathouse to make him a man, Red stops to collect some money from a promoter and ends up in an ill-planned insurance scam involving a diner and a shotgun, and Red meets up with a mentally-imbalance young woman who wants to be a singing star and who may or may not end up carrying Red’s child.

Devoted cineasts know that if a character coughs in Reel 1, they will be dead by the end of the movie, and Eastwood wastes no time in telegraphing Red’s illness — he coughs himself silly at least once every ten minutes. There is no suspense in wondering if Red will survive the narrative, only if he’ll get his big shot at stardom before he succumbs. Along the way, his backstory is eventually revealed and we are reminded that artists, great or not, are not always the deepest of thinkers or the nicest of human beings. Red is almost entirely unreflective about the mistakes he’s made in his life, which makes him both less sympathetic and more interesting — it’s fair to say that Whit ends up thinking more about Red than Red thinks about himself.

(In a way, Eastwood remade Honkytonk Man as Bird, featuring another unreflective, self-destructive musician, and Woody Allen, Eastwood’s shadow, kind of split the difference between Honkytonk Man and Bird with Sweet and Lowdown.)

The script is, generally speaking, pretty good — there are only a few moments here and there where things are explained rather than revealed, and more than once a character comes forward to unburden himself to Whit when he has no real reason to.

The open question at the end of the movie is, what will Whit do, now that he’s seen the price to be paid for musical devotion at the expense of humanity. Spoiler alert: in real life, Kyle Eastwood has gone on to become a musician and composer himself.


3 Responses to “Eastwood report: Honkytonk Man”
  1. black13 says:

    “Red is almost entirely unreflective about the mistakes he’s made in his life”

    That, too, is standard Eastwood. His characters are never reflective. They just are.

    • Todd says:

      Mostly, yes. But at a certain point, round about the time of Honkytonk Man, come to think of it, Eastwood does start to turn reflective, as his themes move away from moving forward and toward taking stock — the Preacher in Pale Rider, William Munny in Unforgiven and the fella in Gran Torino look backward all the time as they try to figure out where they went wrong in their lives and how to correct the sense of imbalance they feel.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I have to admit, all of these are pretty timely. AMC is having Eastwood month or week or something. I know I saw Joe Kidd the other night.

    Oh, and off-topic, have you seen this yet? I’m not sure if it’s legit or not, nor do I approve or what not as I don’t know the story behind it showing up, but it’s out, and I saw it, and I figured you’d be interesting.


    Obviously the actual PDF is what’s interesting, but I figured I’d give credit on where I saw it.