Dwight Yoakam: South of Heaven, West of Hell

Dwight Yoakam
South of Heaven, West of Hell

I used to have the Airplane! soundtrack. It was, quite literally, the soundtrack to the film: music plus lines and sound effects, everything. Putting it on was like watching the movie with your eyes closed. Which poses the two tiered question, can a soundtrack be separated from its movie? And if it can, should it be?

In the case of South of Heaven, West of Hell, I’d have to say no, it shouldn’t. The two should be inextricably linked and, while ingesting them won’t kill you, avoidance is recommended.

The backstory is this: Dwight Yoakam, an incredibly gifted country musician who, by lucky circumstance is also something of a country star, took an acting turn in 1996. He played the memorably malevolent Doyle Hargraves in Sling Blade. Now, Dwight’s a guy with a reputation for being a cowboy-hatted sweetie pie, patient with even the most cloying of fans, down to earth and all that. So when he showed up on screen as a glowering, coiled menace, people believed he could act. Yoakam proved he had more talent than just what had been captured on his CDs.

At that point, Dwight Yoakam had racked up three platinum records and about a baker’s dozen of top ten country hits. His musical career had its ups and downs, but it certainly wasn’t faltering; he wasn’t pushed into acting to pay his bills. It must have taken ambition, talent and luck. He proved that he’s been blessed with not just a musical gift; he has a distinct talent for acting too.

Roll the clock forward five years and you get South of Heaven, West of Hell, Yoakam’s magnum opus. He’s the star. And the co-writer. And the director. The film is a quasi-mystical Western, in which Yoakam’s marshall comes to a desolate town in order to the right the wrongs perpetrated by his black-hatted family. Making bright, shiny appearances are Vince Vaughn, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Peter Fonda, Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens, and Bud Cort — one heckuva cast. The film aspires to the violence of Peckinpah and the understated surrealism of Dead Man, but delivers a disconnected series of unaffecting, off-kilter vignettes. At best, it is a disconnected muddle. It’s obvious that, despite his tremendous talents, with his directorial debut Brother Yoakam bit off way more than he could chew.

Oh, and — as if he didn’t have enough to do — he wrote the soundtrack.

And how is it? The songs are quite decent. The music sweeps across a range of genres, including windblown country, halting guitars, mariachi horns, gospel, rousing roadhouse country rock, and a classically-styled jazz ballad. It’s even built around a thematic refrain that pops up in different forms, as is called for in classic score composing. But the soundtrack also tries to tell a story, the story of the movie. Snippets of dialog between songs are taken directly from the film, and seem to be designed to navigate its narrative.

Unfortunately the film’s narrative never came together on screen, even with all those helpful visual hints to tie it together. Lines like “How long was it? She was gone, I mean”, answered by “Unlike you and I, she retains her sense of smell”, don’t help the story come into any better focus on the CD. Would it help if I told you the character uttering the first line is a cowboy in drag? No? No.

With all this working against it, there’s no hope for the South of Heaven, West of Hell soundtrack to succeed in its effort to become an audio double to the film. Airplane!’s soundtrack was crassly obvious, just the film’s audio tracks slapped onto vinyl, but that way the story made sense. The soundtrack to South of Heaven, West of Hell might benefit from some distance from the film, but its photo-packed booklet and dialog interludes prove it’s all part of the same monster.

Despite all this, there are some listenable moments on the CD. The theme, introduced as piano in the track “Words”, begins haunting and lonely and comes around a corner smack into a grabbing pop hook. Yoakam’s style-shifting is largely successful as he moves from one genre into the next, and the reworked theme holds up played by jazz trumpet as well as it does on guitar. The track of most note, “What’s Left of Me”, which features steel guitar and yawning mournful vocals, could be a rescued country classic, although it’s actually a contemporary collaboration between Yoakam and Mick Jagger.

At some point Dwight Yoakam got caught in an egomaniacal feedback loop immune to criticism, where every act of creation was lauded as genius and that demanded yet another act of genius creation. People around him were swayed — country star Buck Owens put up $1 million when they fell short of the budget — but the entire package suffered. If only someone had the sense or ability to break the cycle and get Yoakam to loosen his grip on his vision.

Dwight Yoakam is surely a standout talent. He writes terrific country songs in a wide range of styles. Acting, too, is something he’s mastered. But the quadruple-whammy of writing, starring, directing and composing proved too much for even his admirable talents. It was simply far too much for a first-time director (and writer) to take on.