Thursday, September 26, 2019


I enjoy genre oddities. Among them are hidden gems at one end of the spectrum and spectacular, ill-conceived train wrecks at the other. The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967) is closer to the train wreck end of the spectrum, but does have a few redeeming qualities.

Producer Sam Katzman, who did Kissin' Cousins (1964) and Harum Scarum (1965) with Elvis, must have thought there was an audience just waiting for another singing cowboy Western to hit the big screen. But when Elvis (or more likely Colonel Parker) took a pass on the lead role, and Ricky Nelson also walked away, it should have been a big hint for Katzman to fold up his script and send it riding off into the sunset without another glance.

Singer Roy Orbison was a bit of an oddity himself. His music was a rockabilly/pop hybrid that didn’t sound like anyone else who was getting airplay on the radio From 1960 to 1966, he had twenty-two singles reach the Billboard Top 40. He wrote or co-wrote almost all that rose to the Top 10, including Only the Lonely (1960), Running Scared (1961), Crying (1961), In Dreams (1963), and Oh, Pretty Woman (1964). However, Orbison did not have the traditional pop star looks. If fact, it was said he had a face made for radio. Orbison was a hot commodity in the music business, but translating that into becoming a movie star, especially with no prior acting experience, was a tragic misstep.

Orbison was partly to blame. He love the movies and when he could break away from touring, writing, and recording, he would often see three films a day. He had also allowed his agent to move him agent, moved him from Monument Records to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a million dollar payday and his promise to follow in the footsteps of Elvis Presley and pursue the wider exposure brought by movie and TV roles.

Filming of The Fastest Guitar Alive began in September 1966. Although Orbison was pleased with the film, it proved to be a major critical and box office disaster. The idea of a musical Western set near the end of the Civil War—and the family tragedies and devastation wreaked by the conflict—simply didn’t resonate with potential audiences. While MGM had included five films in Orbison’s million dollar contract, the flop of The Fastest Guitar Alive was so spectacular no more were made.

If played as a straight Western, the plot of the movie is intriguing. In some ways it’s a twist on the Errol Flynn/Randolph Scott western Virginia City, with which it shares a number of similarities. Johnny Banner (Orbison) is a Confederate spy posing as roving musician. With the gimmick of a gun hidden in his guitar, he’s sort of a guitar-slinging, singing, gunslick. Banner’s sidekick, Steve Menlo (Sammy Jackson), poses as the proprietor of Dr. Ludwig Long's Magic Elixir traveling medicine show. This supposedly allows him to wander into the same places as Banner without drawing suspicion.

President Jefferson Davis has tasked the duo with robbing gold bullion from the United States Mint in San Francisco in order to help finance the Confederacy's war effort. They are to deliver the gold to a general in El Paso—where the Confederacy has emergency plans to flee and regroup. However, immediately after Banner and Menlo steal the gold, the war comes to a sputter halt. They now find themselves on the run trying to evade not only pursuers from both sides of the conflict and wild red face Injuns, but also the affections of the dancing, lovelorn , Chestnut sisters (Maggie Pierce and Joan Freeman). Misadventures ensue.

While most of the song’s Orbison co-wrote Bill Dees were solid efforts, the sound of an electric guitar and orchestra in the Wild West was an off-key anachronism. There was also the problem of portray the Injuns chasing Banner and Menlo as kooky comic relief. The script treatment of these characters was so crass even the presence of Iron Eyes Cody couldn’t salvage the spanner clang of political incorrectness.

If The Fastest Guitar Alive had been a crime, no-bail warrants would have been issued and the statute of limitations would still be active.

While the movie was unremarkable (to be kind), the original poster art by the great Frank Frazetta was awesome. Frazetta’s art also graced The Fastest Guitar Alive soundtrack, which was released as Orbison's eleventh studio album by MGM Records in 1967. It was the only Orbison LP to consist entirely of Roy Orbison/Bill Dees originals. Its single, There Won't be Many Coming Home, reached #18 in the UK and entered the Australian chart at its highest position of #32 before slipping down the chart. This foreshadowed a major downturn in Orbison’s career, which was also affected by a number of personal tragedies.

In the 1980s, Orbison experienced a resurgence in popularity following the success of several cover versions of his songs. In 1988, he co-founded the rock supergroup Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. Orbison died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 52. One month later, his song You Got It (1989), co-written with Lynne and Petty, was released as a solo single and became his first hit to reach the U.S. Top 10 in nearly 25 years.

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