“The Fastest Guitar Alive” (1967)
by A.J. Hakari
I don’t mind musicians being sold as movie stars, so long as the circumstances make sense. It’s one thing to cast Nicki Minaj as some arbitrary supporting character in Ice Age 4 and plaster her name all over the ads like we’re supposed to give a shit, but if you want to put a pop singer on the screen and help move more records, a vehicle that plausibly showcases their talents is a good start. It’s a way for them to get a good idea of how much presence they possess and whether or not the business is right for them, with even the most legendary of songsmiths failing to make the jump. Just take the incomparable Roy Orbison and his sole dalliance with acting, a comedic western known as The Fastest Guitar Alive. What was to be the first in a multi-picture deal for the “Pretty Woman” artist was a failure with both audiences and critics, but although it quashed his movie career before it began, the flick is charmingly chintzy and easily more enjoyable than the slew of vanity projects that other troubadours have hoisted upon us.
Orbison plays Johnny, a six string-strumming, ballad-belting member of a traveling medicine show in the Old West. Along with his pal Steve (Sammy Jackson) and their long-suffering girlfriends (Joan Freeman and Maggie Pierce), Johnny moves from town to town, shilling snake oil and graciously offering “guitar lessons” to any beauties who cross his path. But unbeknownst to the public at large, the gang has a second occupation on the side: they’re Confederate spies, gearing up for their most important assignment yet. They mosey on into a new town just as a shipment of Union gold comes through, prompting a daring heist that the boys pull off like clockwork. But en route to delivering their ill-gotten gains to their superiors, Johnny and Steve experience a minor complication when the Civil War comes to a close, leaving the guys with no Confederacy to go home to and a whole lot of loot they need to get rid of in a hurry.
It’s not altogether unfitting that Orbison chose The Fastest Guitar Alive‘s singing cowboy motif to serve as his cinematic debut. Not only does he have a catalogue of forlorn chart-toppers that echo what one might croon about after a few lonely nights on the prairies to his name, the man even co-composed seven new tunes for the soundtrack here. Of course, none measure up to the caliber of “Crying” or “In Dreams,” but all the western-themed numbers are good fun and lend themselves well to the flick’s breezy nature. The thing about The Fastest Guitar Alive is that, for as much goofy and insulting crud as the ’60s could sling our way, it never feels like it’s condescending. There are plenty of dated gags to behold (including a tribe of comic relief Indians that totally aren’t a bunch of white dudes using horrid pidgin English), but in spite of this and a plot that’s hard to take seriously, there’s a warmth and sincerity to the movie that I have to admire. It’s just such a friendly little affair, from how it uses what scant gunplay is featured for humorous effect to how perfectly cool Johnny and the gang seem to be with not having to be Confederates anymore.
But, you might ask, does The Fastest Guitar Alive do justice to the guy whose name lords over more of the poster than the actual title? To be honest, the answer is…kinda. Orbison does share some of the aw-shucks, country boy charm that made bandleader Kay Kyser an unlikely star in the early ’40s, and when the occasion calls for him to act the coward, he pulls an amusing follow-through. The downside is that most of the time, Johnny is meant to be a debonair ladies man and hardened super-spy, and although Orbison laid claim to a voice that Elvis himself said was the best he’d ever heard, he’s anything but one tough hombre. He’s just fine on stage, but stick him in a gunfight, and he looks hopelessly twerpy, especially when saddled with that shotgun/guitar contraption featured on the poster (which, to the movie’s credit, actually is put into use and not invented out of thin air to put butts in seats). But overall, Orbison looks like he’s having a good time, as do the majority of the actors, from Jackson as Johnny’s easygoing co-conspirator to John Doucette as the lawman hot on the troupe’s trail.
If you have an appreciation for The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, or other westerns that aimed to keep the genre afloat by having a few laughs, you’re likely to have some fun with The Fastest Guitar Alive. It’s certainly no less hokey than similar movies with established name stars, and it has the added bonus of Orbison’s voice belting out a pretty solid soundtrack to boot. Some might look upon it as a cornball relic that was out of touch even when it first came out, but The Fastest Guitar Alive has held on to at least some semblance of legitimate, unironic appeal over the years.
(The Fastest Guitar Alive is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)