Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Five minutes of fame.

A bar on the outskirts of a nameless small town becomes the social setting for a group of everyday people who flock to it one night in hopes of winning an amateur act contest. Every one of the contestants is fighting some inner demon or insecurity and critiqued by a judge (Henry Gibson) that is being bribed by different parties to choose their candidate over the others. There’s also a dangerous serial killer lurking about known as the Disco Killer, who has shot up several other venues in the area and may be eyeing the Dixie bar as his next target.

This TV-movie, which was written and directed by Joel Schumacher, seems way too similar to Robert Altman’s Nashville to be considered original. Clearly that film was this movie’s inspiration and this one does not go far enough with the concept and would’ve been better had its runtime been extended and the characters more fleshed out. Certain actors, such as Don Johnson and Candy Clark, are underused and there’s not enough of an understanding of the town that the bar was in. Some shots of rundown buildings in an isolated area would’ve helped give the viewer a better feel for how bored these people were and why they would be motivated to go on stage and essentially make fools of themselves just for the lofty chance at somehow escaping their otherwise hopeless existence with a small shot at fame.

What I did like is that the entire story takes place in one setting. The only time the camera ventures outside of the cramped place is when it goes into its parking lot for brief periods, but otherwise this bar is the center of the universe for these characters, which for many small town people, especially before the advent of the internet, is what bars such as these represented.

The stage acts themselves were a bit disappointing and could’ve been played-up more as I was expecting something a little more along the lines of stuff seen on the old Gong Show or stupid human tricks from David Letterman. The scene where a big fight breaks out in a dressing room that is far more exciting than anything occurring on stage does allow for some irony and the part where actor Rick Hurst attempts to crack open a coconut by using nothing more than his bare teeth is engaging, but more acts in this vein was needed.

Having Tanya Tucker appear as this shy woman who lacks confidence despite possessing the talent and walks off the stage in humiliation at the start only to redeem herself later, is too manufactured. I much preferred Pat Ast as this homely, overweight woman who unexpectedly wows everyone with some rousing showstopping numbers that should’ve made her the winner instead. I also felt that the so-called prize, which was simply the privilege to appear on stage at that same bar for two straight weeks, was too skimpy. People have bigger dreams than that even in a dusty small town and want more of a reward like  a trip to Hollywood, New York or a contract with an agent in order for them to be excited enough to go through what they do.

There is also no payoff to the Disco Killer storyline. He gets discussed quite a bit and there are even TV news reports about him, but then he never appears, which feels like a letdown. I’m not saying there needed to be a bloody sequence where a killer shoots people dead, but maybe a scenario where the contestants, who are quite competitive with one another otherwise, manage to come together enough to subdue the bad guy, or some other lighthearted element that would’ve at least brought a conclusion to the subplot instead of just letting it hang.

Sheree North as an embittered alcoholic easily steals it and has some of the best lines. There is also a long tracking shot in which the camera starts out at the back of the bar and then slowly weaves its way up onto the stage that is great too. The film certainly has its share of moments and as a TV-Movie it’s impressive, but lacks finesse for the big screen.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: January 8, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 36Minutes

Director: Joel Schumacher

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

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