Just as jazz is a quintessential creation of America’s troubled 20th century, the same is surely true for country music, where traditional folk forms rooted in Irish and Scottish balladry morphed into a distinctive strand of popular entertainment. It’s perceived as downhome, authentic and connected to the lives of ordinary working people, yet it’s still as much about glitz, money and publicity as Hollywood’s celluloid dream factory.
Those very contradictions – country remains somehow traditional and modern, regional and national – make it the very emblem of America’s own wider cultural divisions. So it’s enticing territory for primarily liberal filmmakers to head south, exploring this specific musical subculture to intuit wider statements about the land of the free.
Approaches vary, from the state-of-the-nation address that is Robert Altman’s magnum opus Nashville (1975) to dramas set within the fabric of the country music business, with their own things to say about fame, capitalism, men and women, or even the vagaries of fate.
Elsewhere, the very idea of ‘country’ comes in for scrutiny, with films examining the ongoing resonance of the familiar cowboy-hatted iconography. The weave of the music itself against the hardships of rural life also proves fruitful territory for both hard-edged documentary and stylised fictionalisation. There’s much to savour and ponder here beyond steel guitars, torch and twang.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Director: Bob Rafelson
Credit screenwriter Adrien Joyce (a pen name for Carole Eastman) for sensing music as an American cultural fault-line. Jack Nicholson, in a career-defining performance, is Robert Eroica Dupea, a conservatoire drop-out from a family of esteemed classical musicians, who’s now getting real as a California oil-rig worker with a Tammy Wynette-loving girlfriend (Karen Black, unforgettable as the loving but doomed Rayette).
A true antihero, ‘Bobby’ is a man in the middle of nowhere, barely disguising his contempt for both sides, yet reserving his fullest loathing for himself. Wynette’s countrypolitan anthem ‘Stand by Your Man’ hints at an emotional authenticity he has yet to experience as he hurts everyone around him, not least the waitress unlucky enough to take his chicken salad sandwich order in one of the great set-piece moments of the New American Cinema. See if you can join the dots between Nicholson’s hollow man here and the fraying overseer of the Overlook Hotel 10 years later in The Shining.
Director: Daryl Duke
Rip Torn, much-loved for his comedy turns in his later years in the likes of The Larry Sanders Show and Men in Black (1997), presents one of the most loathsome individuals ever to slither across the screen in this early 70s cult treasure. His mid-table country singer Maury Dann guzzles booze, amphetamines and vulnerable young women as he snakes his way through a succession of one-night gigs. The glimmer of a guest slot on Johnny Cash’s TV show keeps him going, but we can see the calculation in his gimlet-eyed gaze on the cash payout for each night’s show. It’s enough to sustain him in a haze of indulgence so he can set aside the ruins of his personal life.
Here’s a sinewy, uncompromising portrait of how even a hint of stardom feeds the most toxic kind of manipulative, preening, unfeeling masculinity. It was reissued in the wake of Nashville, but it’s hard to imagine that Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury hadn’t been picking up cues from its minimal first run in cinemas.
Director: Robert Altman
Altman’s satirical fresco of the country music capital lays bare a society where never-ending spectacle, whether presidential campaign or C&W star performance, is manufactured for an increasingly restive public. It’s a portrait of the country industry trying to recalibrate after the rise of 70s singer-songwriter introspection, yet also a snapshot of a significant moment in American politics, where the shock of White House corruption and the Watergate affair should be leading to an ideological reset – hence the presence of the fictional Replacement Party and their question-everything messaging.
Miraculously, the film fuses these two elements almost seamlessly. Its brilliant cast hit every comedic and dramatic note, yet Nashville also has room to explore the sexist exploitation of women in the music scene and point up embedded racial attitudes thwarting progress towards a more integrated nation. Of the moment back then, it’s still startlingly relevant in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. One of the truly great American films.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
Director: Barbara Kopple
The bluegrass ballads sung on screen here reflect real lives so soul-crushingly tough that music’s the only expressive consolation to help them get through it. For rural Kentucky miners, union recognition offers an opportunity to win better pay and conditions for the workers, but the owners’ refusal to sign a new contract leads to months of a bitter strike, with ace documentarist Barbara Kopple and her camera on hand to capture the escalating tension on the picket line.
The result is astonishingly vivid, revealing shocking levels of poverty and deprivation in the American heartland. The ferocious resilience of the wives and mothers remains inspiring to witness, however, in stark contrast to the naked greed of the corporate masters and the shifty machinations of the mining unions. Unforgettable fare, which puts everything else on this list in context and offers a salient reminder that country music has deep roots in the soil.
The Electric Horseman (1979)
Director: Sydney Pollack
The image of the cowboy and his steed on the range is a cherished component of the national self-image – and hence ripe for corporate America to get their grubby mitts on it, according to this consciousness-raising entertainment from the ever-classy Sydney Pollack. In this instance, big dollars have bought Robert Redford’s washed-up rodeo champ and one of the country’s top just-retired thoroughbreds to go on a national tour hawking mass-produced breakfast cereal. Bob knows it’s not right, we know it’s not right, and there’s little else to say, except to send rider, horse and tag-along investigative journalist Jane Fonda on a cross-country escapade where romantic stirrings are pretty much a given.
The movie’s just as guilty of image-massaging as the industrial interests it has in its sights, but Redford’s wry central performance is an easygoing treat. Note the presence of Willie Nelson as the star’s wise old fixer, a touch of country authenticity signalling Nelson’s crossover appeal at the time.
Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
While it’s perhaps understandable that folks in the country music business felt Altman’s Nashville was looking down its nose at them, what comes across from this backstage melodrama is a warm and inviting sense of community. It’s especially valuable for capturing Willie Nelson and Family in their absolute prime, with the pick of their songbook performed live, while Nelson’s errant star disgraces himself with the daughter of his most trusted sideman.
Today’s viewer might find the movie a little too tolerant of his foibles, though while Nelson’s relaxed and natural on screen, Dyan Cannon absolutely steals the show as the strong-willed wife who’s having none of his nonsense. Director Jerry Schatzberg, a former top photographer who shot the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album, proves a wily observer in cahoots with Wim Wenders’ regular cinematographer Robby Müller, picking out every choice detail from the unfolding bonhomie.
Tender Mercies (1983)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Acclaimed playwright Horton Foote won an Oscar back in 1963 for his masterful screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which cut little ice with Hollywood 20 years later when everyone passed on this gentle slice of life about a washed-up country singer steadying himself in a new relationship with a Texas widow.
Financed by EMI out of London, and with Aussie Bruce Beresford at the helm, this proved an unlikely triumph, a textbook example of letting a great actor work his magic and allowing the material to speak for itself. Robert Duvall simply becomes ornery, taciturn Mac Sledge before our very eyes, as Foote’s slow-burning script traces a man’s faltering steps back to sobriety and self-worth, guided by a musical gift which never left him. Beresford’s direction is restrained to a degree almost inconceivable today, as the story and characters wrestle with the twists and whorls of fate. Deserved Oscars for Duvall and Foote.
Sweet Dreams (1985)
Director: Karel Reisz
We’ve not been short of Oscar-lauded country biopics in the past few decades, what with Sissy Spacek in the Loretta Lynn story Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), then Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Mr and Mrs Cash in Walk the Line (2005). This turbulent chronicle of ill-fated chanteuse Patsy Cline merits more time in the spotlight, however, driven by memorably full-on performances from Jessica Lange and Ed Harris as her charismatic louse of a husband, the aptly-named Charlie Dick.
Veteran British director Karel Reisz really allows the sexual flame that lit their relationship to keep on burning the barn down, providing evident fuel for Cline’s rendition of torchy classics like ‘Crazy’, which underlines the hurts-so-good masochism of being unable to pull away from a corrosive coupling. Those are Cline’s own vintage vocals on the soundtrack, which leaves Lange the task of miming persuasively – yet no-one else has ever come close to Patsy’s heartfelt intensity.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
To call the Coens’ madcap Depression-era take on Homer’s Odyssey a little like Altman’s Nashville set 40-plus years earlier might seem, frankly, bonkers, yet there’s a lot of common ground in two movies that suggest roots music and political hucksterism are deep in the soul of the south. ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, the bluegrass tune that becomes an unlikely radio hit for escaped prisoners George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, seems as if it’s being played for laughs, yet the musical values throughout the movie are impeccably respectful, spawning a Grammy album of the year expertly recreating period downhome fare.
It’s difficult to know how seriously to take the rest of the movie, as it swans through campaign corruption, Jim Crow racism and the sinister reach of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet the discomforting jaunty tone somehow causes us to engage with the material and the history, where standard-issue liberal hand-wringing with its own pre-packed indignation might have let the audience off the hook. Well worth repeat viewings.
Wild Rose (2018)
Director: Tom Harper
Anyone who grew up in Northern Ireland or the west of Scotland will recognise the integral part country music plays in popular culture, with its adherence to ‘three chords and the truth’, readymade iconography and the promise of escape ticking numerous boxes for working-class audiences. That’s why Jessie Buckley’s volatile Glaswegian wannabe country star is such a believable character: she has the ambition, the big voice, the white-fringed jacket; why worry about the two kids and jail time she’s just gotten through?
We expect a few star-is-born clichés along the road, yet Nicole Taylor’s screenplay has some nifty sidesteps to offer, not least because Buckley’s twentysomething single mum is still an unruly teenager at heart. Her waywardness only adds to the intrigue of how the film will reconcile its faith in the enduring allure of Nashville dreams with the gnarlier reality of hearth, home and bath-time for the kids.