Though most of my columns are written in familiar environs, this week I have abandoned my comfortable work space in favor of gleaning inspiration from the road. I’m spending a few days in the Tennessee mountains communing with family, nature and a jaw-dropping assortment of tourist traps and roadside attractions. And I do feel inspired.
There’s a thread that seems to run through everything in Tennessee, be it an evening meal or afternoon’s entertainment, that gives the state a unique sense of place and purpose.
That thread is music. Be it Beale Street blues or the timeless twang of Nashville country, the state’s proud musical heritage is something that is always seen, heard and understood.
In honor of Tennessee and it’s musical contributions, this week’s Reel Releases showcases films about and/or featuring prominent players from the state’s music community.
NASHVILLE (1975): Robert Altman’s sprawling masterpiece is about much more than country music, but it works because the titular town’s primary industry is established as the engine that keeps the city and the personalities that consider it home running. It’s a cinematic collage that ranks as one of the very finest films of the 1970s.
MYSTERY TRAIN (1989): Although not precisely about the King, this trio of interconnected Memphis tales is fully infused with the hip-swiveling spirit of Elvis Presley. It’s romantic and willfully off-kilter approach to character and setting makes Memphis seem less like a small Southern city than a philosophical stance shared by all who choose to live or visit there.
THE THING CALLED LOVE (1993): This raw gem by Peter Bogdanovich is best remembered as the final film featuring the gone-too-soon actor River Phoenix. That’s a shame, because it really is an interesting look at the young people that regularly flock to Nashville seeking country fame and fortune. By keeping the film relatively rough around the edges and filming in established Nashville locales, such as the famed Bluebird Café, Bogdanovich was able to conjure a film that feels honest and authentic.
COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER (1980): This cinematic recounting of the life of Loretta Lynn is the music biopic by which all others are measured. A compelling story beautifully told, Coal Miner’s Daughter tells a true rags-to-riches story without ever feeling forced or maudlin. Particularly worthy of note are the career performance by Sissy Spacek and Lynn’s incredible music.
PAYDAY (1973): There is a certain isolation that is the natural byproduct of being a performer. Sometimes this provides the space and freedom required to create. Other times, well, it can be destructive and dark. Payday focuses on the latter. Rip Torn stars as a mid-level country performer whose delusions and demons cause him to manipulate and misuse anyone that steps into his space. It’s a solid, if sadly forgotten, film that doesn’t just look at the dark side of the music industry, it wallows in it.