When Roy Orbison died in 1988, his career was peaking again. He had a new album out, he was a member of the still-popular Traveling Wilburys, and the hit movie [i]Pretty Woman[/i] was inspired by one of his most famous hits. He was eulogized by Rolling Stone as "a quiet, thoughtful Texan who came along and proved to the world that rock & roll could also be about love--the cryin', achin', heartbreakin' kind."
I know this not because I'm some sort of Roy Orbison devotee, but because this information comprises more than half of the description on the VHS box of [i]The Fastest Guitar Alive[/i], the sole acting role for the sunglass-hidden crooner. My guess is that the video producers either decided that the less people know about the film the better, or they just couldn't make it through the damn thing. As an actor, Orbison is a great singer.
In Fastest Guitar, Orbison plays Johnny, part of a two-man team of Confederate spies who go around robbing Union banks for much-needed gold during the Civil War. He also carries a guitar with a rifle barrel that shoots when need be, though the tone of the film is so light it would have looked freakish if any of his bullets actually hit a person. The two are posed as snake-oil salesmen, and their relationship with a pair of showgirls who hang around with them makes for frequent reasons for Orbison to play in cabarets.
The minimal plot involves out motley crew robbing a bank and going on the run in an attempt to get the gold back to Confederate headquarters, dodging shady lawmen and comic relief Indians on the way. You might expect something in the way of commentary, but the Indian stereotypes are slightly less subtle than the average episode of "F-Troop," with the Chief saying things like "There be hot time in wigwam tonight!" The war itself is brushed aside as well, amounting to choice bits of dialogue like "You just don't trust northerners!" "Well, they don't trust us either." "I guess that's what makes war." [i]Dr. Strangelove[/i] it ain't.
So the movie is dumb in a crappy '60s sitcom sort of way, but what really brings [i]Fastest Guitar[/i] down to well below par is Orbison. He squeaks out every line as though almost apologizing for having to say it, awkwardly moving as though he's somehow has his direction programmed into him rather than given by a human being. Those that have wondered why Orbison always wore sunglasses need ask no more, as he spends much of the movie with naked eyes--tiny, squinty little things that barely register. At certain times you can even forget that he's in the movie when he's on screen, and he sucks he air out of any given scene no matter how much energy the other actors have put into it.
His co-star, ex-AMG model Sammy Jackson, fares a little better, though trying to make up for Orbison's life-strangling performance is a bit too much to ask. Joan Freeman, on the other hand, plays Orbison's love interest with such vigor and energy that it really hurts when she stops talking, mostly because you realize Orbison will have to grunt something in response, thus destroying any pacing the scene has built up. (Freeman's most notable other role, strangely, was playing Corey Feldman's mom in[i] Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter[/i]. So now you learned something.)
I'm picking on Orbison a lot, and it kind of bothers me to do it, because he's a fine singer, and the film does feature several performances that, while obviously lip-synched, make him look at least slightly more comfortable. The first number's a non-Orbison bit by showgirls with lyrics like "I want to be as snuggle as a buggle in a ruggle when my sweetie doesn't snuggle-uggle with me" that may cause you to get stomach cramps from giggling so much, but after that, it's all Orbison, and it's all pretty good, though none of it is prime stuff. The worst bit is the second-to-last number that underlines the film's Charlie Callasian treatment of Native Americans as Orbison sings "Medicine Man" as he beats on a drum and showgirls dressed as squaws serve as back-up.
The non-singing bits, however, are barely worth slogging through. Sure, there's some bizarre dialogue (the rant "When a woman wants something from a man, she makes love to him! When a man wants something from a man, he goes to war for it!" is followed by another character remarking, "Jesus, I wish I could think of things to say like that.") courtesy Robert Kent, the man behind tolerable drive-in fare like [i]Twice-Told Tales, Diary of a Madman, Hot Rods to Hell[/i] and about a half-dozen of the early rock'n'roll features. But the music sequences seem out of place, mostly because they're watchable, and a love triangle that depends on chemistry between a spunky gal and a dead-eyed golem is just never going to connect.
[i]Fastest Guitar Alive[/i] would have been a crummy enough barely-remembered sixties comedy without Orbison, but with him it manages to be a historical footnote that serves as a warning that not all performers should try to stretch their talents in public. As Jackson says at one point, "You'd better stick to singing. You don't have much future in the spy business." He may not have been speaking in character.
(Sam the Sham is in this, but having no idea what Sam the Sham looks like, I didn't spot him. I did recognize famed Italian "Indian" Iron Eyes Cody, however, a couple years before he was very dissappointed in you for not recycling.)