Review: The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967)

It worked for Elvis, why not Roy Orbison? Back in 1967, MGM took a chance on the rock pioneer by trying to make him the star of a light and fluffy musical film with youth appeal. To achieve this, Sam Katzman hired Michael D. Moore, one of the greatest and most prolific second unit and assistant directors in the biz; seriously, his IMDb page is like a greatest hits of cinema. Moore had served as A.D. on many outstanding projects--The Ten Commandments and War of the Worlds being just two of them-- and had ridden shotgun on a whole string of Elvis movies: King Creole, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, and Roustabout. In 1966, he'd graduated to full-fledged director on the Elvis vehicle Paradise, Hawaiian Style, which had turned a small profit at the box office. There may have been nobody better suited to try to copy the formula that had clicked so well for The King to his Sun Records brethren Roy Orbison. 

It didn't work. Unsurprisingly, Orbison is no Elvis. He's stiff and seems uncomfortable on screen. Worst of all, because this is a western, Roy is sans shades for the entire picture and--as a consequence--is practically unrecognizable. The killing blow is a complete lack of charisma and screen presence. However, All that changes whenever he opens his mouth and unleashes that haunting vibrato, which the movie capitalizes fully upon with seven original songs. They're all fairly forgettable, but hey, so were most of the songs in Elvis movies, too. 

I mentioned that The Fastest Guitar Alive is a western, but it comes so late in the lifespan of the genre that what we get is closer to Wild Wild West than Have Gun - Will Travel. Sidebar: isn't it interesting that I just compared this theatrical film to two television shows? That's what it feels like, a TV production. At any rate, Roy plays Johnny Banner, a ladies man who is secretly a spy for the Confederates during the Civil War. Along with his fellow adventurer Steve, played by Sammy Jackson, the two are tasked with stealing the gold bullion from the U.S. Mint. Let's be clear: the movie is not interested in this. It's all an excuse to have our lead dress up in disguise, make out with pretty women (walking down the street and otherwise), and play his guitar, which houses a secret gun that he can trigger with the flick of a switch. By the way, the extending gun barrel is also a metaphor for Orbison's "member", if you catch my meaning. Trying to make Roy a sexual entity is another misstep. 

The film was accompanied by a soundtrack album that features all seven songs from the film PLUS three extra tracks not featured in the film including a dramatic dirge called "There Won't Be Many Coming Home", which closes the album. You may remember the song from Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. It's criminal that it doesn't factor into the 1967 western, but then again, it's an awfully melancholy song for such a campy little confection featuring the guy who sang "Ooby Dooby." No wonder it didn't make it into the film. All ten of the songs on the album are composed by Orbison and Bill Dees--a prolific country songwriter who wrote "Pretty Woman" with Orbison. On another musical side note, Sam The Sham ("Wooly Bully") has a small part in the film. 

The Fastest Guitar Alive isn't a painful watch, it's just a shame that it isn't better. There's a reason Roy Orbison only starred as the lead in this one film. As it turns out, his calling was to the musical stage, not the movie screen, leaving this little gem as a curiosity for the musicologist and rock and roll collector. There is currently no Blu-ray on the horizon, but Warner Archive released the film on MOD DVD years ago and it looks great. Given the middling legacy of the film and its many musical performances, I'm not sure there will ever be anything better. Still, it remains a fun--if forgettable--curiosity from The Summer of Love. 

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