Greg Wild’s “Highway of Heartache” holds the distinction of being the first (and, to date, only) Canadian country western drag queen movie musical. Imagine John Waters remaking a Douglas Sirk soaper under the ægis of the Grand Ol’ Opry and you have an idea of what to expect here.
“Highway of Heartache” finds poor, silly little Wynona Sue Turnpike (Barbara Chamberlin) living with her abusive husband in a claustrophobic trailer. She dreams of success in Nashville and only needs a chance to get away. But when hubby gets too slap-happy, Wynona Sue puts an end to his evil ways with a well-aimed revolver. Surveying her carnage, she bursts into song proclaiming “I’ve Got a Ring on My Finger (And a Corpse on the Floor).” A pair of obese cross-dressers (played by a duo called The Big Wigs) provide moral and musical support as Wynona goes through a seemingly endless series of crises: homelessness, a disastrous job in a beauty salon (she fries away a wealthy client’s hair), an icky bit of venereal disease, a one-in-a-zillion big break that brings her Nashville fame, then a spell on Death Row, liberation, a reunion with her long-lost mixed-race child, and so on and so on. Try to imagine every heartache that a country music queen could possibly encounter and chances are Wynona Sue gets it five-fold.
“Highway of Heartache” works so intensely on so many levels that it is truly mind- and ear-boggling. Most successful is the original country music score, composed and performed by Barbara Chamberlin. Offering an on-target parody of the genre’s corny lyricism and honky-tonk acoustics, the songs keep perfect track of the screenplay’s rude twists (the VD sequence is treated with the ballad “Burnin’ Beaver Blues”). Reflecting the aural assault is the film’s wacky visual decor: intensely and obviously artificial sets painted in cartoonish Day Glo colors, with a curious cow pattern running throughout. The actors are all extremes: big hair, big eyeglasses, Fauvist-hued clothing, fairly loud voices and (in most cases) an excess of bodyfat.
When “Highway of Heartache” first peeked into theaters back in 1994, many critics were horrified by some of the extreme humor (most notably Cathay Che, who walked out of a New York press screening for the film and used her column in the gay weekly HX to blast the production, the theater that showed it, and even the pet cat who lived in the theater!). Much of the humor here is, admittedly, of the locker room variety involving body functions, interracial love and overt sexual innuendo. Yet the film is also rich with harmless goofball antics (mostly cross-dressing actors camping it up in obvious grande-dame costumes) and some wonderfully vague gags (Wynona Sue’s gynecologist is, inexplicably, played by an Elvis impersonator in a sequined white jumpsuit). Unexpected animated bridge sequences come and go in delightful surprise, and no sight gag is too obvious or inane (the jury at Wynona Sue’s murder trial cue their verdict with a display of frying pans!) The biggest fun comes from The Big Wigs, who reportedly decided during the production that they were the true stars of the film and thus conspired to work overtime to steal the show.
“Highway of Heartache” still remains woefully obscure some six years after it was completed. No distributor who dare touch it when it was first presented and the filmmaker’s attempts at self-distribution were constantly thwarted; cinemas with a history of chance-taking presentations wouldn’t even consider it. A company called Next Generation Video [ (www.nextgen-video.com) ] is offering the film on home video, and with luck, “Highway of Heartache” can locate the audience it should have received years ago.