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Review of "Carny" -- the Movie & the Album

by Donald Joseph

This article was written exclusively for The Band website.
Copyright © Donald Joseph 2002.

"Carny" is particularly important in the Band's body of solo work because it represents probably the most significant dramatic lead film performance of any Band member -- and its soundtrack is Robbie Robertson's first solo album effort. (Levon Helm appeared in "bigger" movies, and Robertson later appeared in, at least, "The Crossing Guard."  But Robertson in "Carny" is significant because he stars.) 

This is a Band-perspective review of "Carny" -- the film and the soundtrack album.

-- Donald Joseph, May 2002


"Carny" in Context

"Carny" came out in 1980. There was some problem with its release and distribution; I remember trying to find a theater in Florida showing it first-run, and having to track it down at a seedy drive-in (in retrospect, sort of an appropriate venue, I guess).  Somehow it missed a major release.

The director is Robert Kraylor, who was (at the time, at least), said to have been a significant director of documentaries; this was said to be his first dramatic (fiction) movie.  The "story" is credited to Kraylor, one of his relatives, and also to Robertson. Thomas Baum, though, wrote the screenplay based on the Kraylor/Kraylor/Robertson story.

"Carny" was Robbie Robertson's eagerly-awaited post-"Last Waltz" project. It has been said that Robbie had loads of movie offers after "The Last Waltz," because Hollywood had decreed that he came across in "The Last Waltz" as a potential movie star. After sifting through what has been said to be a mountain of offers, Robertson worked up "Carny," apparently because the subject attracted him (lots of critics drew the connection to "Life Is a Carnival").

The movie, though, was no blockbuster, and Robertson's acting career essentially died (other than subsequent years' small roles such as "The Crossing Guard"). 
[cover art]
Carny soundtrack album

The Soundtrack Music & Album

The film's opening credits credit only Alex North with the music, but the closing credits also credit Robertson with "Midway Music." North (now dead) was a veteran, well-respected soundtrack/Hollywood movie scorer. 

The soundtrack album (on record; I don't believe it's out on CD) has Robertson music on side one, and North music on side two. Side two sounds pretty much like standard movie-music, and, while not offensive, is of no interest to the Band fan.

Side one has 6 songs; 4 1/2 written by Robertson. (The "1/2" is "The Fat Man," credited to Fats Domino & Dave Batholomew, "additional lyrics by Robbie Robertson" (shades of "Mystery Train"). The sixth tune is credited to "Randall Bramlett & Davis Causey."

Robertson is credited as playing on only the first 3 of these 6 songs: "Garden of Earthly Delights," "Pagan Knight," and "The Fat Man." (The first 2 are instrumentals with Robbie on guitar; Robbie also sings on "The Fat Man," the only vocal on the album.)

The first song on the album, "Garden of Earthly Delights," is stripper-music (and is used this way in the film; the carnival in the film offers a strip-show in a trailer also called the "Garden of Earthly Delights").  It is a fantastic song, and Robbie's guitar solo on it is probably my all-time-favorite Robbie solo; it surely is one of his most prominent solos ever recorded, on a par with his solo on Clapton's "Sign Language," but faster, louder, and even funkier.  "The Fat Man" is also a standout cut. These two songs alone make the soundtrack album well worth owning (however, the other songs are not that great).

The film seems to use most of these side-one songs as background music, but to my ears it appears that the movie's versions of these songs are different recordings from the album versions. The vocal cut, "The Fat Man," is sung in the film by a carnival-freak fat man, not by Robbie, so clearly it is a different version. The carnival fat man in the film (called "Harold 'Jelly Belly'") sings amazingly soulfully -- better than Robbie on the album. This is not to criticize Robertson's vocal -- it's just that guy who plays Harold "Jelly Belly," or whoever was overdubbed for him, is an unexpectedly talented singer.      

By the way, the movie's closing credits, although citing Robertson as creator of "Midway Music," fail to give detail as to specific performances or songs used. On the album, though, the credits are clear: Dr. John plays organ on 3 cuts, and Gary Busey contributes "drums & vocal harmony" to "The Fat Man." The other players are all listed, but none has a significant Band connection or independent name. Apart from "The Fat Man," the whole album is instrumental.

On to the movie.
[cover art]
Robbie Robertson as "Patch"

The Plot

In my opinion, the Achillies' heel of "Carny" is its plot -- the music, direction, art direction, dialogue, and acting are all excellent, but there's not a lot of story (ironic, in that 3 people, including Robertson, are credited with the "story," separate from the script.) As I recall, my opinion on this point corresponds to what the critics said at the time.

Robbie plays "Patch," a troubleshooter for a small-time carnival called, unimaginatively, "The Great American Carnival." Patch troubleshoots on the carnival midway (cooling out drunks, paying off cops, etc., essentially doing what a bouncer does in a bar -- he doesn't run the carnival).

Gary Busy plays "Bozo," Patch's running mate, best friend, and trailer-mate.  During carnival time, Bozo dons clown make-up and insults patrons from within a caged dunking booth: Bozo insults passersby, who then pay to try to dunk him with a baseball throw -- "two bits a shot" (actually, a buck, given inflation).

(Aside: At the time Carny was made, 1980, Busey was a promising actor. He subsequently was in a motorcycle accident and suffered serious brain and cosmetic damage; his career never got back on track. He has been in some big-budget action films.)

Near the beginning of the movie, Bozo insults a kid, inciting him to buy baseballs and try for a dunk. The kid's girlfriend -- Donna -- is played by Oscar-winner Jodie Foster. (Foster's breakthrough role had been in "Taxi Driver," directed by "The "Last Waltz's" Martin Scorcese.)

Later that night, with the kid attending the carnival's strip show, Bozo/Busey befriends Donna/Foster (although she says she's just 18 and is referred to in the film as "jailbait").  Bozo convinces her to run away with him in the carnival, after she tells him "I hate this whole town. If I had the money for a bus ticket, I'd leave right now."

But of course Bozo/Busey rooms with Patch/Robertson -- they share a trailer. Donna/Foster is extra baggage who creates tensions. When Bozo tells Patch that Donna is "our" girlfriend, your menage-a-trois detector redlines.

Much of the film just shows the carnival traveling; it's episodic, but the episodes don't advance the plot. Examples:  

  • In one scene, Patch/Robertson holds a straight razor to a troublemaker's throat and hisses "I think it's past your bedtime." Later he appears to slit a guy's throat with the razor.  

  • Early on, in a "the-road-is-a-goddammed-impossible-way-of-life" scene, Patch pulls back his hair and asks Bozo: "Is my hairline receding? I'm getting too old for this stuff, I think." (It's ironic, because Robbie's hairline, at least circa 1980, is almost simian, not receding at all.)  

  • Bozo/Busey tells Donna/Foster that Patch/Robertson "looks kinda dark and ominous, but he's not."   

  • A local lawman warns Patch: "No exhibition of human oddities for profit."  

  • Patch tries to interest Bozo in joining him on a date with identical-twin sisters; Bozo demures because of loyalty to Donna, to which Patch says: "I don't wanna get double-doored in the double duty." (Huh?)  

  • Besides his singing scene, Harold "Jelly Belly," the Fat Man, has a scene where he escapes his trailer and walks out in the rain. When I saw the film in 1980, I was struck by how obese this fat man was.  Oddly, though, today in 2002 he doesn't really look much fatter than people you see in the checkout line at K Mart.  

  • Patch/Robertson walks around with his shirt open showing so much chest-hair you wonder if he's the model for Austin Powers's chest-wig.  

  • Eventually Donna/Foster, to get Patch "off her back," decides to earn a living as a stripper in the carnival's "Garden of Earthly Delights." Patch muses: "So you're gonna be a hootchie-cootchie dancer now, huh?" Patch then sets her up for failure, leading to a pre-climactic scene.
Ultimately the plot budges just bit, when Patch finally has his foreshadowed steamy sex scene with Donna/Foster, triggering Bozo's jealousy, and making the "menage" genuinely "a trois."  But watching Robbie Robertson paw an apparently-18-year-old Jodi Foster is disconcerting, to say the least. (Wasn't Robbie worried about what John Hinckley might do to him?)

Of course, Robby's romance is ill-fated, due to the Bozo/Bucey relationship.  A fellow cornival stripper named "Sugaree" (homage to the Grateful Dead?) spells it out for Donna/Foster: "You still don't get it, do you? There ain't no room in the middle of those guys."

As the tension builds, Patch and Bozo end up re-bonding when a small crisis arises: Some local politicians try to extort money from the carnival and also get a romp Donna/Foster, to boot. Patch and Bozo set up a sort of a sting, but not before one of the lecherous creeps gets Donna/Foster alone in a trailer and says: "Ain't you the sweet young thing? I bet you're a real tight fit." (Ugh!)

After this mini-sting plays out (it amounts to all the movie offers by way of surprise-ending/climax, so I won't spell out any more details), Patch and Busey are once again buds, even agreeing to switch jobs for a night -- with Patch putting on the bozo makeup and Busey policing the midway. 

Roll credits -- that's it.

By the way, I think coda, the bit about switching jobs, is a direct lift out of the Flintstones, where Fred spends a day as a homemaker while Wilma does time in Mr. Slate's quarry.   

Summary Commentary

Again, "Carny's" shortcoming is its lack of plot/story. The dialogue is good, the evocation of the carnival life is excellent, and the acting is great -- all three principals are excellent, leading you to believe that Robbie has chops on more than guitar.  

Other Credits

Besides acting, writing, directing, and music credits noted above, Robbie Robertson is credited as the film's producer, and ex-Band road manager Jonathan Taplin is "Executive Producer." Otherwise I saw no Band-related names in the credits.  Robertson gets credited with third billing, after Busey and Foster -- but ahead of everyone else. 

There are 6 credited "Specialty Acts" (yes, that phrase appears in the credits) -- a bearded lady, a midget, etc.

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