It is appropriate "Highway of Heartache" makes its commercial premiere in the city that John Waters made famous, because I think it's not going too far out on the old limb to suggest that young director Gregory Wild just may have seen a John Waters film or two.
Now, you may well ask, what is the point of making a John Waters film if you are not John Waters? I wouldn't be able to answer that one, but it doesn't seem to have stopped Wild or even given him a moment's pause. On the other hand, the movie that Wild has unleashed upon a dozing world is vivid, abrasive, funny, outlandish and full of inventive song parodies as it does a real buzz-saw job on the world of country-western music. It apes the old pre-studio Waters from the days when the world could still be shocked.
"Highway of Heartache," which opens at the Orpheum today, is the story of Winona Sue Turnpike (great name), played under 17 pounds of red Dynel hair, 13 pounds of rhinestone-studded glasses and enough lipstick to write a novel with, by Barbara Chamberlin, who is nothing if not game. The film is a kind of parody of a subset of biopics that might be called country-western-queen bios, of which both "Coal Miner's Daughter" with Sissy Spacek and "Sweet Dreams," with Jessica Lange, are the prime examples.
But the prevailing aesthetic is camp. The movie transpires on extravagantly exaggerated and harshly overlit sets, with grotesque props, lots of bewhiskered men in drag, crude primary colors blasting away against the camera lens. There aren't any performances per se, at least not in the sense that a character arc is identified and followed, but a lot of very loud, showy impersonations. Everybody seems to think he's Devine.
The tale is your usual morbid, dysfunctional story of an abused woman who murders her husband and, after surviving her electrocution, be-comes a huge C-W star, and not a bit of it is meant to be believed literally. Still, it's at such a consistently blatant tone that it does grow a bit wearying toward the end.
Besides Ms. Chamberlin's heroics under all that weight, the movie's best value is its music, particularly a number of song parodies that send up the bathetic and lachrymose qualities of country-western music quite adroitly.
But there's not a lot of love or respect in "Highway of Heartache." It's clear that Wild only grasps that culture at the most superficial level, making his attack on it superficial. He has no idea what makes it go or what the quality of imagination behind it might be: It's a big, ugly joke to him.
'Highway of Heartache'
Starring Barbara Chamberlin
Directed by Gregory Wild
Released by Scorn-o-Rama Films
Unrated (sexual material)
Sun score: **