When I assign this film to the genre ‘country’, I indulge in a private short hand. These are films that use the ambience of the world of country-western music as setting for the story – a story more often than not about a quest, journey, romance, etc. than country music as such. Another outstanding example is Baja Oklahoma (1987), which also featured Lesley Ann Warren.
George Strait, a big name in country-western, gives an astonishingly sophisticated performance as a burned-out artist who walks away from it all to find out who he is and what he values. True, we’ve seen this before — and herein, precisely, lies the interest in this film. How is the variation played out this time?
The hero, Dusty Wyatt Chandler, has something akin to a nervous breakdown on stage, trapped in a dazzle of stage lights and fireworks and crazed fans screaming in the darkened arena like the souls of the damned. After the show, he tells his drummer and boyhood friend he needs to go for a walk.
The journey begins – his ‘walkabout’.
It is hard not to map this film onto the typology of the katabatic hero tale. When he sings in the opening number about the heartland, we may assume he is not singing about exterior geography of the American Midwest but the territory of the emotions. This is the land that his journey allows him to explore. First he returns to his boyhood home where he gets a shave and a haircut, thus symbolically divesting himself of the old life he wishes to shed. When he arrives at his grandmother’s, a Sibyl-like persona (“there are no answers, only the search”), she could “hardly recognize” him in his changed appearance. This is the first of a series of anagnorises, or recogniton scenes, in which he alternatively hides and reveals himself until the final ‘recognition’ scene when he proves to the woman he loves who he really is. His art — his music — becomes the means to that end. Sound familiar — from about three millennia ago?
He walks away from the grandmother’s house carrying his first guitar, a bard roaming the Texas hill country. The standard population of this kind of tale appears in the shape of a bullying cowboy in a bar, a lovely woman (Harley) with whom he falls in love, her taciturn but solid family (brothers and a grandfather — played with wonderful panache by a still handsome Rory Calhoun), a dark-clad pretender, the cemetery where the parents lie buried, the seductive and willful Lulu, who is both the helping female and the hindering female so common in these quests since before the time of Odysseus.
There is admittedly a certain amount of heartfelt sentimentality in this film, but it is carried off without offense. I think of it as sentiment. And, besides, who (let’s be honest) doesn’t want to see the hero find both his woman and himself?
I’m sure this film will not appeal to everybody, but I certainly enjoyed seeing the classical paradigm informing a story about the pressures of contemporary musical tours.
Pure Country is pure delight.
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