As the film opens on an Oklahoma farm during the depression, two simultaneous visitors literally hit the Wagoneer home: a ruinous dust storm and a convertible crazily driven by Red, the missus' brother. A roguish country-western musician, he has just been invited to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, his chance of a lifetime to become a success. However, this is way back in Nashville, Red clearly drives terribly, and he's broke and sick with tuberculosis to boot. Whit, 14, seeing his own chance of a lifetime to avoid "growing up to be a cotton picker all my life," begs Ma to let him go with Uncle Red as driver and protege. Thus begins a picaresque journey both hilarious and poignant.
Clint Eastwood ... Red Stovall
Kyle Eastwood ... Whit
John McIntire ... Grandpa
Alexa Kenin ... Marlene
Verna Bloom ... Emmy
Matt Clark ... Virgil
Barry Corbin ... Arnspringer
Jerry Hardin ... Snuffy
Tim Thomerson ... Highway Patrolman
Macon McCalman ... Dr. Hines
Joe Regalbuto ... Henry Axle
Gary Grubbs ... Jim Bob
Rebecca Clemons ... Belle
Johnny Gimble ... Bob Wills
Linda Hopkins ... Blues Singer
Set in Depression era Oklahoma, this film tells the story of a dirt poor, alcoholic singer named Red Stovall (Clint Eastwood), who heads out for Nashville, in hopes of making it big as a country singer. The story begins on a dilapidated farm composed mostly of dust, where Red's sister hesitatingly allows her son Whit (Kyle Eastwood) to go with Red to Nashville. The kid's Grandpa (John McIntire) also wants to go, to return to his native Tennessee. The film's beginning is dreary and depressing, but wonderfully realistic of the dust bowl days of the 1930s.
Much of the plot takes place on the road, as the three travelers encounter an assortment of characters and problems along the way. The most important character they meet is a young girl named Marlene (the late Alexa Kenin), who yearns to be a country singer. It's one of many plot contrivances, but at least this contrivance offers some humor, especially when Marlene ... "sings". Other plot contrivances include a jailbreak, an angry bull, an aborted robbery, and an incident involving a chicken coop.
If the film's weakness is excess contrivances, the film's strength is the portrayal of Red as an interestingly complex character. He coughs a lot, a symptom of tuberculosis. And the TB is getting worse. The question is ... will Red be able to reach the promise land before the disease affects his ability to sing? And, in a long monologue aimed at Whit, Red talks about his long-ago love affair with Mary Sims.
The film's acting is credible, if not outstanding. Kyle Eastwood does a nice job as Whit. The film also features cameos by several then-current country singers. At the end, there's some sad real-life irony as Marty Robbins helps Red.
"Honkytonk Man" has some good atmosphere. Arguably, the best segment is at the Top Hat Club on Beale Street in Memphis, where the great Linda Hopkins belts out a blues number. If the film's writer had ditched some of those hokey "on the road" contrivances, and focused the plot more in smoky old bar rooms with low light levels and mournful music, the film would have been a lot better. As is, "Honkytonk Man" is still worth a look, if for no other reason than to see a low-key character study, in contrast to the brash and gaudy big ticket films of that cinematic era, like "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and "Star Wars".
The critics didn't like this film, but I beg to differ. Perhaps I'm naive and gullible, but to me it rings true in its local color and the coping of poor people in the Depression amidst the aspirations of young and old alike.
My father, a published author in a small way, once mused to me that if he were to write a novel, it would be about someone trying to come to terms with his own mediocrity. Such is the theme of this movie, and hardly typical a consideration it is in a time when the media bombard us coast to coast, for our adulation, with the glamorous images of a mere handful of individuals who happen to have landed vast fame and fortune. What does any of this have to do with most of us? On the one hand, we live day to day. On the other, a recurring dream whispers "maybe..."
Knowing that he is living on borrowed time, Red, humble and hand-to-mouth but respected more than he knows by a few somewhat more successful colleagues (and an unusually fallible and vulnerable character for Eastwood, which he plays well) is granted, in extremis, an apparent opportunity to reach for the stars. More down-to-earth, he is also fortuitously blessed/burdened with not just one but two young proteges: first his nephew, then also a girl at loose ends. Perhaps neither is particularly talented; nevertheless both have a claim on his attention which he reluctantly fulfills in his own unassuming way, while making no exalted pretenses as to their prospects. When on his deathbed he can do no more for them, he commends them to each other. "You take care of her, now" he rasps to Whit. "She's okay. Help her with her singing." While they may never reach celebrity, the texture of life can sustain them if they face it together.
As, dying and perhaps delirious, he gazes up into Marlene's face, he sees the "raw-boned Okie woman" he had loved for several years as a mistress, and whom he later had regretted leaving. She had borne a girl whom he had never met. Marlene was a fatherless waif of about the right age. Did he recognize at the last moment his long-lost daughter? It is a question which the film leaves hanging in the air. Does genealogy matter? In practical terms, that is what she became almost too late.
For my money, it's a raw-boned, American Okie "La Boheme."
Clint Eastwood, looking drawn, rumpled and weathered, takes a radical, courageous departure from his usual reliably stalwart tough guy persona in this gently moving, defiantly unheroic and very low-key seriocomic 30's Depression-era set drama as Red Stovall, a boorish, feckless, dissolute, alcoholic drifter, failed would-be country-and-western singer/songwriter and general all-around worthless, ill-tempered and irresponsible rapscallion with an unfortunate knack for getting into trouble, messing things up and making life hell for everyone who gets close to him. Slowly dying from tuberculosis, Red makes a lengthy, arduous pilgrimage from Oklahoma to Tennesse to make his dream of performing at the legendary Grand Ole Opry come true, taking his foolishly awestruck nephew Whit (nicely played by Clint's then 14-year-old son Kyle) and his frisky grandfather (a superb John McIntire) along with him. During their eventful odyssey Whit breaks Red out of jail after Red is arrested by drawling good ol' boy sheriff Jerry Hardin for stealing chickens, Red takes Whit to a whorehouse so the boy can lose his virginity, and the group has colorful encounters with an obnoxious, conniving teenage girl (a perfectly irritating Alexa Kenin) who tries to dupe Red into believing he impregnated her, grubby mechanic Tracey Walter, venal highway patrolman Tim Thomerson, and mean, untrustworthy bar owner Barry Corbin prior to Red arriving in Nashville for his do-or-die audition, only to erupt into a coughing fit in front of the hard-nosed talent scout (a marvelous cameo by John Carpenter movie regular Charles Cyphers) while in the middle of belting out the wonderfully regretful and reflective titular song.
Eastwood's subtle direction doesn't in any way force the wry humor or delicately heart-breaking sentiment found in Clancy Carlile's folksy, quietly observant script, allowing the story's considerable poignancy to stem naturally from the characters and the experiences they have. Eastwood furthermore delivers an excellent and convincing performance as Red, an atypical Eastwood lead who's initially quite unappealing and only becomes endearing in the picture's tragic closing sequences in which Red's deep-seated yearning to belatedly realize his potential and subsequently be somebody makes itself touchingly apparent. The rest of the cast, which also includes Verna Bloom and Matt Clark as Red's tolerant, long-suffering relatives, are every bit as fine.
The elegant, lyrical cinematography by Bruce Surtees gives the film a misty, lived-in look that's a beguiling blend of warm heartfelt nostalgia (Eastwood was born in 1930 and partially grew up during the Great Depression; he traveled about the country with his itinerant laborer father during this troubled time) and scrappy downcast authenticity. Noted country-and-western producer Snuff Garrett was the music supervisor for the stand-out soundtrack; such famous and revered singing stars as Ray Price, Porter Wagner, Frizzell and West, blues singer Linda Hopkins, and especially Marty Robbins have telling bit parts -- Robbins, who died shortly before the movie opened theatrically, has a lovely moment as a back-up session musician who assumes lead vocal chores when Red becomes too weak and sickly to finish the song himself. Eastwood sings a few numbers with a frayed, raspy, worn-out baritone -- it's a hoarse, yet affecting croak which bespeaks countless years of hard living and heavy drinking with a bracingly matter-of-fact directness. Why, "Honkytonk Man" even comes complete with a provocative philosophical message: Sometimes it's the people you expect the least from who teach us the most about life. Unjustly vilified by most critics and ignored by audiences when it first came out, this tender little gem deserves to be rediscovered as one of Clint Eastwood's most surprising and adventurous as well as thoughtful and underrated change-of-pace cinematic excursions that he has ever made to date.
# Clint Eastwood's then-girlfriend, Sondra Locke was Kyle Eastwood's acting coach for the film
# The script originally called for Kyle Eastwood's character to get high from smoking marijuana, but Clint Eastwood, who is very anti-drug, refused, even with Kyle even using a prop cigarette. Eastwood finally relented to his son's character getting high from a contact buzz.
# James Stewart was first choice for the role of Grandpa but he was reportedly too ill to perform.