August 6, 2008

Nashville Guitarist Was Crazy — but Biopic is on the Level ; Crazy

By Michael Janusonis

While watching director Rick Bieber's Crazy, I started to wonder why a movie this good has not yet been picked up for release by a major studio.

It's the story of Hank Garland, a name and even a face you might not recognize. But it's certain that everyone of a certain age (as in middle age, at least) will have heard his artistry. Garland had a magical touch with the guitar and his playing backed up some of the most famous names on record out of Nashville in the 1950s, including Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Chet Atkins, the Everly Brothers. Presley, in fact, called him one of his favorite guitarists.

The title, Crazy, describes both Garland's ultimate problems and his obsession with his lovely wife Evelyn (as well as being the title of one of Cline's most famous songs).

Bieber's film follows Garland's career path and love life in familiar biopic terms that have been used before to tell the life stories of everyone from Buddy Holly to Ritchie Valens to Cline herself. And part of the reason that Crazy has yet to make it to the local multiplex, and instead is playing only two shows tomorrow and Sunday among 288 other films at this week's Rhode Island International Film Festival, is that very familiarity. It has a recognizable arc that takes Garland from eager youthfulness to demanding musician to obsessive romance to tragedy, something we've seen in all those other films.

It doesn't help that no one knows who Garland is, nor that he's played by Waylon Payne. Payne is excellent in the role of this doomed musician, but not a star with a name that anyone will recognize more than they do Hank Garland's.

That's a shame because Payne, who even looks a bit like Garland (seen in archival photos during the credits at the end of the film), is wonderful as he rides the ups and downs of Garland's career and mood swings. Even during his more exasperating moments, when he's demanding and obstinate, we can appreciate Garland's faith in himself and unwavering perfectionism.

We first see Garland in his initial appearance sometime in the late 1940s on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, floored at meeting Hank Williams backstage and then flooring the audience with his rapid-fire guitar playing once he goes on.

Cut to 10 years later and Garland is the most in-demand musician in Nashville, backing some of the day's most famous recording stars. But by now we see that he has become a demanding perfectionist who is cockily self-assured. "They need me," he says confidently, even as Orbison sticks his neck out to back him up. Garland wants more money for adding his arrangements and cleaning up the songs other people have written. His abrasiveness leads him to lock horns with a big-time record producer (David Conrad) who will later figure in some of the most difficult moments of Garland's life.

With a boyishly handsome face, Garland is the babe magnet of his day. On a trip to Chicago, he meets blond beauty Evelyn (Ali Larter), a woman who is far more sophisticated than he, but who nevertheless falls in love with Garland, following him to Nashville and eventually marrying him. "Sometimes I can't even breathe," he says of his strong feelings about her.

But their mutual obsession contains the seeds of destruction. She begins fearing that he's seeing other women, especially when he's away for long periods in glamorous places such as New York and Hollywood. In one emotionally gut-wrenching moment, Larter demonstrates Evelyn's frustrations and longings while she's home alone, yet all the while pointing out that she's aware of her own strong sexuality and appeal to other men.

The race question arises when some in the South, including Evelyn at one point, are disturbed not only by Garland's acceptance of the artistry of black musicians, but that he sometimes sits in with them. Garland, stand-up guy that he is, refuses to back away from his principles, something that will cost him dearly later on.

This is a classy looking production, with good period touches to put us in the 1950s as well as archival footage of famous places from the era. The sequence showing Evelyn's fall from grace is presented effectively by Bieber, who intercuts shots of her with Garland and his musician buddies playing in some club.

No good, of course, will come of this as Garland becomes unhinged and tragedy follows tragedy. Crazy is a bittersweet film that should win fans beyond the music scene for it's as much a social commentary about its era as it is a well-told tale.

Crazy will be shown at 9:15 p.m. tomorrow at the Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, Providence, and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Narragansett Theater in Narragansett as part of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Tickets are $10 at the door.


Starring: Waylon Payne, Ali Larter, Lane Garrison, David Conrad.

Rated: Not rated, contains adult themes, profanity.

Waylon Payne is country musician Hank Garland and Ali Larter is his wife, Evelyn, in Crazy, tomorrow and Sunday as part of the 2008 Rhode Island International Film Festival. [email protected] / (401) 277-7276

Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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