' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Outlaw Blues (1977)

Friday, September 06, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Outlaw Blues (1977)

If Bobby Ogden, an ex-convict sprung from the clink only to run right back into unlawful trouble, spends most of “Outlaw Blues” on the lam, he never comes across all that panicked about it, maintaining not so much an even keel as a kind of cool languorousness, embodied in the vibe of Peter Fonda, technically the leading man of even if he never seems all that interested in wresting absolute control from his co-stars, more like a band leader than a front man, or something, which effortlessly wins you to his side. Indeed, director Richard T. Heffron’s movie is set in and around Austin, Texas, the home of Richard Linklater, and while one might not technically have anything to do with the other, the air of “Outlaw Blues” is eerily reminiscent of Linklater’s patented hangout chill. Bobby hiding out at the home of his emergent paramour, Tina (Susan Saint James), in fact, feels less like hiding out than hanging out, her pad conveniently, wonderfully situated on the banks of the Colorado River, allowing for myriad scenic shots of Bobby, an aspiring country-western singer, to strum his guitar alongside it. He’s on the lam but he still finds time to play. Respect.

“Outlaw Blues” opens with Bobby still in jail where a Nashville star Garland Dupree (James Callahan) comes to record a Live at San Quentin-ish album. The warden kindly asks Dupree if he might listen to Bobby play a tune. Disinterested, but not wanting to appear disinterested, the singing star agrees, and the sequence where Bobby performs his original song giving the movie its title briefly turns “Outlaw Blues” into a whimsical concert film, the camera lingering over each player in Dupree’s band cum Bobby’s band, including Tina, a backup singer; it might be jail, but if feels like the Grand Ol’ Opry for just a flash. And the song is so good, Garland promptly steals it, recording it and turning it into a hit, which Bobby gets wind of as the warden tries, unsuccessfully, to help his inmate get what’s his.

This note intrigued me. This seems like exactly what you’d want in a warden, embracing social reform and trying to aid his inmate in his aspirant dreams. I wondered if this would have been the case had the performer been not Bobby Ogden but, say, Ivan Martin – you know, Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come.” That’s the 1972 Jamaican cult classic with a similar outline to “Outlaw Blues” but a dissimilar spirit. There Ivan also has his music stolen from him, but rather than getting even with the man he sinks further and further into the abyss, the man always one step ahead, and the dreamy, violent conclusion becomes a wicked send-up of the mythic outlaw spirit.

“Outlaw Blues” is not sending up anything, except the record industry, with Tina establishing herself as a Bobby’s agent, in a manner of speaking, getting his version of the song enough radio airplay to supplant Dupree’s version, turning the con-on-the-lam into a folk hero, like a musical Bonnie and Clyde, cheered on as he shows up at Austin hot spots like the Soap Creek Saloon to sing a couple songs and then make haste when the cops appear. This means the back half of “Outlaw Blues” is like a concert film crossed with a chase movie, as Bobby and Tina stay one step of the authorities and of Dupree, not amounting to much more than a leisurely good time, though I’m not sure it has to. Music doesn’t have to change your life, sometimes you just put a record on to alter your mood.

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