It’s been a long wait, but finally the gritty 1972 drama Payday, starring Rip Torn at his most bravado, has been officially released on DVD in the U.S. Briefly available briefly on VHS tape in the ’80s, Payday circulated as a bootleg, derived from a European DVD copies, for a number of years. Issued as a volume in Warner Brothers new “Directors Series,” Payday is a great little character study film that found a niche audience in the early ’70s, before the age of the blockbuster. The success of Easy Rider and the growth of the youth market in the late ‘60s contributed to the rise of these films, as the nudge/wink of ’50s and ’60s Hollywood was supplanted by a mass-market acceptance of profanity, nudity, overt sexuality and violence. New stars like Jack Nicholson were ubiquitous in this era, as films like Five Easy Pieces, Drive, He Said, Two-Lane Blacktop, The Last Detail and Vanishing Point reigned on college campuses, and in city “art houses” which had spent the previous decade specializing in “adult” European fare. This was a great era in American cinema; most of the films have aged exceedingly well, and Payday is one of them.
Payday presents the sordid side of the music business with gusto. The film follows 36 hours in the life of country music star, Maury Dann. Torn’s incredible performance as Dann is the stuff of Lifetime Achievement awards. The character is a composite of many of the legendary Honky Tonk and C&W artists—Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, George Jones, and most obviously, Hank Williams—who made their living crisscrossing the highways, playing one night stands from one roadhouse to the next, with all the prerequisite hard drinking, hard drugging, hard gambling and hard fucking that goes along with it. Country music was generally not a subject that Hollywood brought to the screen; hillbillies and their rural music were considered too déclassé for any treatment beyond a B-picture for the southern drive-ins.
In the 1960s, music films grew beyond their ‘cavalcade of stars’ format of the ’30s and ’40s or the type of Popstar-as-Actor films that Elvis specialized in from the mid-’50s on, evolving into the “rock film” as a more serious pursuit (think Performance, Privilege or John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can, which oddly stars Brit Invasion second-tier moptops The Dave Clark Five). As rock music scrutinized its country roots through Gram Parsons, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones et al, and as mainstream America was exposed to it through television (The Johnny Cash Show, Hee Haw), Payday and Altman’s Nashville a year later, had a reasonable chance at a national audience.
But Payday is not populated with pickin’ and a grinnin’ players in Nudie suits. Torn’s Maury Dann has been on the scene for years. He appears stuck in neutral: gigging nonstop for months, and popular enough to do TV appearances with Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, but still playing the honky tonks for a few hundred patrons a night. Dann’s affable enough, singing for a receptive crowd that knows his hits. The gleam in Dann’s eye shows he can find a young female conquest in the crowd, and hustle her into the back seat of his Caddy while her date searches for her. We follow Dann back to a low budget concrete motel, after his road manager (Michael C. Gwynne in a tight performance) has worked out the cash receipts— the Payday—or the night. Dann visits his drug addled mother, does a little hunting, drops in on his ex-wife, and seduces a naive, starstruck young girl (some of the pot smoking scenes may seem a bit dated, but are reminiscent of the era). As the day progresses, more of the Dann’s heinousness is exposed.
Torn’s performance in the film is absolute perfection. Those who know him only from his roles in The Larry Sanders Show and Men In Black will find a different actor here. Elmore “Rip” Torn (the nickname has been passed down for a few generations in his family) began his career as an acclaimed stage actor in the ’50s, though by the ’70s his reputation as rough and rowdy hard drinking Texan was well known, fueled by a much publicized brawl with Norman Mailer during the filming of the author’s Maidstone (footage of them trying to bite each other’s ears off is easily found on YouTube). So it’s hard to tell where Rip Torn ends and Maury Dann begins. The fire in Torn’s eyes is incendiary, whether he’s shitcanning band members, pouring amphetamines out of his guitar case for his mother, dealing payback to a a small town DJ, or throwing his girl friend out of the car on some lost highway. Torn establishes the music star as a man stuck in arrested adolescence, his work day consisting of 90 minutes of singing and 22 hours 30 minutes of intoxication and sexual gratification. There is no glorification here, in fact Dann becomes more repulsive as the film progresses.
It’s interesting to note that the film’s executive producer was Ralph J. Gleason, the legendary San Francisco music columnist, champion of beatniks, Lenny Bruce and jazz and rock music. Director Daryl Duke (who provides commentary on the DVD) spent nearly his entire career working in television; he won a citation from the National Association of Film Critics for this film, and it’s sharply directed and beautifully shot (around Selma, Alabama). Maury Dann’s songs were composed by Shel Silverstein, a uniquely talented songwriter, author and cartoonist, who was as well known for writing children’s books as he was for writing for Playboy, along with songs like Johnny Cash’s epic A Boy Named Sue and Dr. Hook’s The Cover of Rolling Stone.
Payday, a critical fave though never a hit, evokes an era when American filmmakers made “feel bad” films. Much of this was influenced by the general pessimism of the times. Films like Payday explored the darker side, just as the gangster films of the 1930s and the film noir of post-World War II presented a deeply pessimistic outlook on life. This era of U.S. cinema, when films were less influenced by corporate committees and focus groups, deserves to be appreciated and enjoyed by contemporary audiences, now more than ever.
DJ Brother Cleve is known as one of the pioneers of the international lounge scene.