Daryl Duke’s Payday (1973) with Rip Torn and a cast of fabulous unknowns, is the best movie ever made about American music. Written by Don Carpenter, who never got another screen credit, it appeared two years before Robert Altman’s overrated, condescending, Nashville.
Both cover the same territory, the world of country music in the early 70’s, but where Nashville attempts to stand above its subject in dismissive judgement, Payday revels in the down and dirty world of country singers; a life of pills, booze, one night stands, and gladhanding assholes at every stop. It gives the viewer an unflinching look at the life a of mid-level country star, played with gusto by Rip Torn, on the road eleven months a year, and it tells the story without the mythologizing and/or moralizing that seems to be built into the music film genre.
I bring up Payday mostly, because I happened to notice that Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his portrayal of a country singer in an innoucous little film called Crazy Heart. I didn’t hate Crazy Heart, I just thought it was dull, but I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges and I’m glad he won the Oscar simply because he’s been in so many good movies over the years (and saved some mediocre ones) that have gone unacknowledged– Fat City, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Last Picture Show, Heaven’s Gate (very underrated), Cutter’s Way, Masked and Anonymous (I know it was awful, but I liked it for reasons I can hardly explain), American Heart, insert your favorite here. Now both movies are supposed to be roughly based on the life of Waylon Jennings with a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams thrown in. If you’ve seen both films, it’s hard to believe anyone two people could examine the same subject(s) and come away with such different view points. I can assure you Payday is a lot closer to real life.
Okay, film critic I’m not, but discounting documentaries (and there’s not even a whole lot of great music documentaries), great films about popular music– This Is Spinal Tap, A Hard Day’s Night, Expresso Bongo, Performance, Round Midnight, The Connection (which is more about dope than music, but it does star Jackie McClean), and for you low budget sleaze fans (count me in)– Wild Guitar, Space Is The Place, Rock Baby, Rock It, The World’s Greatest Sinner, hell, you can count ’em in a cigarette pack, are indeed a rare breed. More common are films so bad you can only laugh, or if you’re Elvis (who never made a great movie, and only four watchable ones*) shoot out the screen– Cadillac Records, What We Do Is Secret, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There are more recent examples of films that stand out as some of the worst crap I’ve ever sat through (okay, I turned the channel on Cadillac Records thirty minutes into it, but I just can’t imagine it was going to get any better). This dearth of intelligent use of multi-million dollar budgets only makes Payday that much more special. I won’t even get into the tired, cliches of the bio pics like Ray, I Walk The Line, and Control, the first two are practically the same movie, the later put me to sleep within minutes.
Getting back to Payday, it’s star Rip Torn turned in one of his very finest performances. In his portrayal of country singer Maury Dann, Torn created a character that tells us more about the world of country music than you’ll learn by watching ten years worth of CMT. As of late his great talent seems to be going to waste, he hasn’t had a decent role since his classic portrayal of Artie, the TV talk show producer (a character based on real life Tonight Show producer Freddie De Cordova) on the Larry Sanders Show, except a tiny part in No Country For Old Men (easily the best thing the Cohn brothers have ever put their stamp on). These days Rip’s most entertaining when getting arrested for his drunken antics (he recently broke into a bank after midnight thinking it was his house). Which brings us back to the fact that Payday is an overlooked masterpiece, and anyone who cares about music owes it to themselves to see it at least once.
* Okay, I’ll name what I think are the good Elvis movies, if you’re curious– Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, King Creole and Flaming Star. I guess if you held I gun to my head I’ll admit I like Viva Las Vegas but it’s hard to call it a good movie. In fact it’s hard to call any of them good movies, if Elvis wasn’t in them, they’d all be unwatchable, except Flaming Star which might have been better off without him.