The Bad Movie Report


The Fastest Guitar Alive

First, I want you to imagine a movie - a film version of The Wild Wild West starring rock legend Roy Orbison.

I'm sorry, I've just asked you to imagine a more interesting movie than The Fastest Guitar Alive. I'll try to do better next time.

At the time of this movie's release, Orbison's fellow Sun Studios crooner Elvis Presley had been making profitable movies for nearly a decade, so it seems somewhat logical that Mr. Sunglasses would get tapped for a movie career at the height of his fame, driven by songs like "Pretty Woman" and "Only the Lonely". So why does this movie's very existence come as a surprise to so many people? Let's find out:

Over the dulcet strings of the movie's theme song (one of seven Mr. Orbison will sing in the course of the flick), we meet our heroes, and there's a heapin' helpin' of them, let me tell you. So many that there are two wagons (drawn by four horses, luckily):

  • Johnny Banner (Roy himself) sits in the first wagon, strumming and singing away. Johnny is a Confederate spy.

  • Steve (Sammy Jackson), handsome rogue, is doing the actual driving. He, too, is a Confederate spy.

  • Sue (Joan Freeman) is in the second wagon, along with all the other women, who, although they are also Confederate spies, are engaged in all sorts of girly stuff like laundry and sewing. Sue is supposedly Johnny's girlfriend - given movie logic, this becomes obvious as we discover they cannot be in the same room without fighting.

  • Flo (Maggie Pierce) is our other major female. Confederate spy, of course. She's Steve's girlfriend, although these two have a more reasonable relationship, i.e., one that isn't dependent upon sniping at each other every five minutes. So I guess they just don't love each other very much.

  • Emily, Margie, Tanya and Carmen (Wilda Taylor, Victoria Carroll, Maria Korda, and Poupee Gamin) round out the population of the second wagon. They are all, needless to say, Confederate spies.

All these happy-go-lucky Confederate spies are on their way to San Francisco, where they plan to steal $150,000 in Yankee Komedy!gold to bolster the nearly-depleted coffers of the South. Ah, but before we get there, we have to make a bizarre little sidetrip...

You see, there's a very small (cost-effective) Indian tribe nearby, engaged in... Oh, there's no way around it. I'm going to have to describe the whole blasted thing . The chief (Ben Lessy) is spreading paint on an animal skin. He then lies on the skin and orders his second in command (Iron Eyes Cody) to roll him up in the skin. Once the Chief is unrolled, he is covered in interesting swatches of color. The tribe marvels at this ("Is best warpaint job I ever seen!"), and the Chief informs them, "Is Neo-Impressionist School! Someday, when I am finished painting on me, I will paint on canvas!" Iron Eyes states, "Right now, you look good enough to hang in museum!", prompting an exaggerated, Alan Hale Jr.-type comic take from the Chief. All that is missing is a boi-i-i-i-ing! sound effect, the first and last time this movie can be accused of subtlety.

Our heroes' mini-wagon train is spotted, and the Indians mount up - the Chief, rather short in stature, is carried to and lifted upon his horse (with more facial mugging), but because this is Komedy!!!, he is mounted facing the horse's rear. After he is turned the right way, the Indians ride off, as we hear one ask (oh-so-obviously looped in later), "We give-um big scare, no hurt, right Chief?"

How do you load that thing?It is now official. We are in the Scooby Doo version of the Old West.

The Neo-Impressionist tribe attacks, and rouses the ire of Sue as an arrow transfixes her good pair of knickers (hung out to dry between the wagons). It is up to Johnny to save the day and justify the title of the movie, as he presses a switch on his guitar and a rifle barrel extends from the body of the instrument. Somehow Johnny manages to aim the bizarre weapon and fires, snapping the war spear of the Chief in half, and causing the whole "big scare" to be called off.

If you suspect the rest of the movie cannot possibly compare to the surreality of this first five minutes, you are correct - but I'm in this for the long haul, so I might as well drag you along, too.

Yes, there are parts of the 60s I missIn San Francisco, the plot begins to slowly - and I do mean slowly - unfold before us. The caravan is parked near a fancy saloon, and Steve hawks "Dr. Ludwig Long's Magic Elixir" while the girls dance in the saloon's floor show as "The Chestnut Sisters". Enter the local Marshall (John Doucette), who is looking for the daughter of the commander of the local Union garrison, Colonel Bascomb. The Marshall, it seems, understands that she has been taking "guitar lessons" from Johnny. Every time somebody says "guitar lessons" in this movie, it is obviously intended to have quotation marks around it, and mean something far more salacious.

Steve starts a small riot in front of the medicine wagon to cover his slinking off to the saloon, wherein he warns the girls and the owner of the saloon, Charlie (Lyle Bettger) - yet another Confederate operative! - that the Marshall is on the prowl for Johnny. Sue is miffed at this news - particularly so when she finds Johnny and the Colonel's daughter necking behind the changing screen in her dressing room (see? Roy's the James West of this outfit!) The daughter splits, but Johnny has already used his masculine spy wiles to find out that the gold is arriving at 11:15 that night. His wiles, however, turn out to be particularly useless in deflecting the wrath of Sue.

Orbison dons his Kenny Rogers disguiseThe spies' somewhat complex, Mission Impossible plan goes into effect, even after the Marshall finds Flo, Sue, Johnny, Steve and Charlie conspiring in one of the girls' dressing room. To provide an alibi, Johnny starts the floor show that night playing his guitar and singing a song called "Pistolero". Then he and Steve sneak out and drive the wagon to a nearby office building while Johnny, in the back, dons a disguise (man, he's the Artemus Gordon of the team, too! How the hell did the South lose?).

Apparently, our southern spies have been in town for a couple of months, as Johnny in disguise has rented an office in this building, next to the room where the Yankee gold will be sequestered. After knocking out the night watchman, Johnny sets a dynamite charge in a hole that has been surreptitiously knocked in the connecting wall, and blows the wall just after the larger portion of the gold's military escort leaves. Steve rushes into the room and punches out the one guy who wasn't knocked out by the blast (as it is the Scooby Doo west, no one is even scratched by flying pieces of wall).

KOMEDY!Oh, wait, there may be one casualty, as Johnny staggers through the hole blown in the wall, moaning, "I'm blinded! I'm blinded!" Steve turns him around, only to discover that Johnny's fake beard has been displaced to up around his eyes. Steve pulls down the offending hairpiece, as Johnny says, "Thanks. I thought things were looking kinda hairy." Komedy!!!

Meanwhile, back at the saloon, the Marshall is making Charlie nervous by continually asking when that new feller is going to sing another song. Charlie continues to ply him with free liquor, but Charlie should really lay off the whiskey himself, 'cause it looks like he's getting an ulcer.

With the gold's escort safely bound and gagged, Johnny and Steve lower the two strongboxes of gold into the wagon (through a special trapdoor in its roof) and Johnny conceals them in a secret panel while Steve drives back to the saloon, just in time for Johnny to sing his closing number. To further the alibi, Johnny announces that he and Sue have gotten married and will be leaving that night for their honeymoon. Oh, and the other girls are coming with them, 'cause they're going into business. This ploy, of course, enrages Sue beyond words (Ha ha! Wimmen! they don't know what they want! Komedy!!!)

Even such a carefully crafted and plausible alibi does not totally fool the Marshall, who keeps tabs on the medicine show via telegraph, as they begin winding their way towards El Paso and the Confederate Army (one presumes both wagonloads are whistling tunelessly so as to appear nonchalant). They run into the Neo-Impressionist I don't know about you, but I just can't get enough of this guitar gun stufftribe again, and this time the Chief has brought his own guitar, and is thoroughly mystified as to why it is not shooting people. Johnny's guitar shoots the neck off this bogus banjo and the tribe retreats - though I should also mention that Sue gets revenge for her earlier punctured panties by the thoroughly female (and need I add komedic) device of a garter loaded with jars of cold cream, a deadly improvised slingshot (any further elaborations of this character as the Macgyver of the team was doubtless lost in script rewrites).

Sigh. I guess it's time for plot threads. The Marshall figures that the crew must be passing through Prescott, Arizona (for some reason, Prescott is the Gateway to El Paso), and alerts the local law, Sheriff Joe (Douglas Kennedy) and Deputy Rink (Ben Cooper) before himself heading out for points east. In the wilderness, Sue decides that she will actually marry Johnny, much to the man's befuddlement (to be plain, Orbison seems befuddled through much of the movie, but we'll get to that). Steve reflects that the South is almost bankrupt, and it'll be years before a man could earn enough money to support himself and a wife, but Flo says that doesn't matter, awwwww, bill bill, coo coo.

The next day, Johnny fishes (and croons to the fish, as we haven't had a song in a while) while the wimmenfolk bathe employing a makeshift shower. Who should come along but Rink, who leeringly looks into the shower and then grabs Flo, saying that "I always had a thing for clean girls" (this is a strange injection of darkness into an otherwise cheerful, family-friendly western * ). Johnny arrives and uses his guitar to shoot the the deputy's hat off, and once the lecherous lawman still attempts to ventilate Johnny, it's Steve's turn to beat the bejeezus out of the jerk (okay, so maybe Orbison isn't the James West of this outfit) for attempting to besmirch his gal's honor. Rinks swears vengeance and rides away, sans gun and dignity.

The Confederates edge cautiously into Prescott, only to find the town in the midst of a celebration. Why? The South has surrendered! The Civil War is over! Which only causes more problems for our heroes, as they are now in possession of $150,000 in gold and no idea what to do with it (Yes, yes, I'm sure we all have ideas as to what to do with it, but let's save those for the discussion period).

Oh.  My.   God.The local saloon owner, Stella (Patricia Donohue) offers them a job in her floor show, and the troupe accepts, over Steve's misgivings, as he'd like to blow town as soon as possible, but he eventually allows that this will give them time to ponder their next move. What they don't know is that the treacherous Charlie has made it to Prescott ahead of them, and is plotting with Stella to steal the gold.

That night, Johnny starts the show banging on a tom-tom and singing "Medicine Man" while the four non-star women perform one of the worst-choreographed dance numbers outside of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Then, apparently genetically unable to hang around backstage between numbers, he checks on the wagon, only to discover that Charlie has already attempted to break into it. Luckily, Steve was on guard duty and knocked out the unsuspecting former comrade. Figuring that "the vultures are starting to circle," Steve and Johnny decide to leave that night. Johnny alerts the girls to this plan of action by taking the stage and singing a song called "Rollin' On"... which is actually halfway clever, come to think of it.

Even the worldly Stella is shocked at the amount of male bondage in this movieJohnny returns to the wagon only to find that Steve has also had to coldcock Rink, and then the Sheriff. Tying all these scalawags up, the two men hotfoot it to the saloon; unfortunately, Stella has gotten tired of pacing and gone to the stables to see what was taking Charlie so long. She unties all the bad guys and they strike a deal to stop the wagon.

Oh, things look bad, alright, as our wagonload 'o' heroes is stopped by a full four people (but hey, Stella's carrying a rifle). Just then, who should intervene but the Neo-Impressionist Tribe, who offer to run interference in exchange for the "magic guitar". Steve quickly agrees (over Johnny's protests), and seeing that the Indians have a guitar that shoots bullets, the superstitious bad guys promptly beat cheeks (this is apparently far more menacing than a pompadoured cracker wielding a guitar that shoots bullets).

So our heroes take advantage of this respite to leave town - no, what am I saying, they stop at the hotel - also owned by Stella, I might add, but we're probably not supposed to remember that - to pick up the girl's things (Wimmen!). Mainly, however, this allows the newly arrived Marshall to hide in the shadows and overhear their plan to return to San Fran and surrender the gold and themselves to the Army. The Marshall steps into the light, holstering his gun and admitting he's delighted that they turned out to be okay folks after all, and will escort them back to Frisco, "The last part of the Confederate Army to surrender." Time for Roy to sing that Fast Guitar song again (I guess the Confederate version of Q Branch made him more than one trick guitar). The end.

Joan Freeman ponders her co-starFirst things should be addressed first (logic dictates): a movie featuring a rock star attempting to become a movie star is going to depend a great deal on the performance of its drawing card: said rock star. And as an actor, Orbison was a fine musician. He seems uncomfortable with the entire concept, at ease only when he has a guitar in his hands and singing. Every line is delivered in the same tone, at the same pace, in a reading-off-the-cue-cards way; the few times they give Orbison a laugh line will make you wince. The one time he's guitarless and taking part in a dance number, he appears to be concentrating mightily. He glances at the camera at least once.

God bless him, the boy gives it the old college try, but Orbison simply wasn't meant for the big screen. The seven songs he contributed for the project are all quite good, though, and the movie becomes infinitely more tolerable when he is left to his strong suits: his music and distinctive voice. The whole flick might have been more successful had he been relegated to a more minor role, stepping to the fore when it was time to sing. Like Elvis' relatively minor outing in his debut, Love Me Tender, this would have given Orbison more time to learn the ropes, and there might been a second movie.

Or maybe not. Cruel as it is for me to say this, there was a reason Orbison wore those sunglasses all those years. Beady, close-set eyes too small for his face really kind of dooms him as a romantic lead.

Past Orbison, the actors are a likable if undistinguished lot. It's interesting to track the connected filmographies in this movie's entry in the Internet Movie Database. The lovely Joan Freeman went on to a fairly nice career, even directed a couple of films, up until her sad death by suicide earlier this year. Victoria Carroll, besides Nightmare in Wax, has some great voice acting credits of late, and of course we all recognize Poupee Gamin from Journey to the Center of Time.

The stars editorialize about the title weaponScript wise, The Fastest Guitar Alive peters out after the gold heist, but up to that point (the Neo-Impressionist Tribe notwithstanding), it's fairly good; I appreciate the fact that the plot isn't spelled out at the first, but we are allowed to learn about it as it progresses. This served to involve me in the movie, when chances are my survival instincts would have caused me to reach for the remote control after the first piece of Komedy!!! Though it must be admitted, when I start yearning for the return of the Neo-Impressionists, something is way wrong.

Even through all this, probably the major reason this movie failed was disastrous timing. The Fastest Guitar Alive takes place in an impossibly clean and well-lit West, much like another family-friendly romantic comedy-Western that year, The Ballad of Josie (starring Doris Day, 'nuff said). But another Western would Just one more thing we need to apologize for to our red brothersserve to eclipse such outings: Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars hit American screens, and a sea change began to sweep over the American Western, eventually making way for bitter revisionist outings like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and Doc. The movie also came out just in time for the Summer of Love, and Orbison's rockabilly-tinged music was no match for the music America's Youth now craved, the acid-tinged music of The Doors, The Beatles, Jimi, Janis, you know, all those guys with 'J' names. Orbison's career would fade until the 80's, when David Lynch's cheerfully perverse Blue Velvet would bring him back to the forefront.

Bad timing, bad acting, bad Komedy!!!! Good Roy Orbison songs! What more could you ask? I hereby dub this a new party tape for the coming millennium, and immediately - and somewhat suspiciously - wash my hands of the whole thing.



- September 17, 2000