An eventful, music-oriented road movie that defies easy classification, HIGHWAY 61 reconfirms that Canadians are quite leery of the US, that huge, loud neighbor from whence so many marvels and nightmares come.
The title refers to a stretch of highway that longitudinally spans the continent, linking New Orleans at one end with Thunder Bay, Ontario, at the other. It's in the little town of Pickerel Falls that Pokey Jones (Don McKellar), a humble barber and frustrated trumpet player, is thrust into the
spotlight when an anonymous, drunken youth happens to die of exposure in his yard. Enter Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar), a rock 'n' roll roadie on the run with a fortune in cocaine. She claims the dead kid is her brother and pursuades Pokey to drive her and the body down to New Orleans for the
family funeral. In reality she's stashed the coke down the throat of the corpse and has to smuggle it to her drug connection in the Big Easy. The pine coffin precariously perched atop his vintage Ford Galaxy, naive Pokey and hard-hearted Jackie set off down Highway 61 into America, "the Land of
Kings" notes Pokey with deadpan sincerity in his postcards to a Guns 'n' Roses fan back home.
The characters they encounter on the US side of the border run the gamut from threatening to very, very, very threatening. There's Watson (Peter Breck) a gun-toting lug obsessed with "good family music" and ruthlessly grooming his motherless brood of children for wholesome showbiz stardom; a
mansionful of Jackie's has-been rocker friends, wasting away in dissolute, twilight existence--an environment straight out of the Eagles' "Hotel California"; but most of all there's a certain Mr. Skin (Earl Pastko). He's gaunt, malevolent, and happy to purchase the immortal soul of anyone who
crosses his path. It seems the deceased boy had sold out to Mr. Skin (the price? a free concert ticket), and now the devil wants his due, pursuing the protagonists all the way down to New Orleans to get his claws on that cadaver.
HIGHWAY 61 traverses the backroads of fame, fortune and tawdry ambition that compromise the American Dream, and while it takes a few strange detours, it's well the worth the trip. Handsomely mounted for $1.2 million, the film was inspired by the Bob Dylan song "Highway 61 Revisited" (the road
passes through Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, and in one scene Pokey plays homage to the house where the music legend grew up). Director Bruce McDonald is one of the rising stars of Canadian cinema, having made his feature debut in 1989 with the well-received ROADKILL, and like that film
HIGHWAY 61 boasts a screenplay by actor Don McKellar, who makes his characters quirky, ideal traveling companions.
A riff on New Orleans barber cum cornet player Buddy Bolden, Pokey Jones may be somewhat timid and slow to catch on but he's nobody's fool when it comes to standing down a rowdy biker gang (all it takes is a good haircut and a shave) or confronting Satan in his lair. Valerie Buhagiar looks and
acts like a heavy metal Mona Lisa, whose smile may be genuine or just another deceit as she ends Pokey's virginity at gunpoint and leads the hapless Ontarian deeper into terra incognita. Punk rock star and monologist Jello Biafra, no stranger to legal hassles himself, has a juicy cameo as an
uptight American border cop; the former Dead Kennedy's frontman barely contains the sarcasm in the finger-wagging antidrug warning he unloads at the two Canadians early on.
The real scene-stealer, though, is Earl Pastko's Mr. Skin, a big-as-folklore embodiment of diabolical evil. It's a bit of a letdown, in fact, when Pokey tracks him down (in New Orleans everybody can point out where Satan lives) and finds that this Lucifer's roots are less than supernatural. He's
just an elaborate wacko who lost his mind after the death of Elvis Presley. Still, he's got several walls filled with polaroids of those from whom he agreed to purchase souls--some for as little as $20 or a pint of bourbon. Now that's scary.
Dedicated to a bluesman named Blind Boy Grunt, HIGHWAY 61 has a soundtrack with a peculiar skimming of rock, pop, jazz and gospel--everything from Tom Jones to the Ramones to Andre Crouch. The picture's exhibition covered less territory, unfortunately, receiving mainly film festival and art house
exhibition in the US. (Violence, substance abuse, profanity, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: R
- Review: An eventful, music-oriented road movie that defies easy classification, HIGHWAY 61 reconfirms that Canadians are quite leery of the US, that huge, loud neighbor from whence so many marvels and nightmares come. The title refers to a stretch of highway that… (more)