“Avco Embassy seems to be carving out a rather special niche for itself with such folksy entertainments as “Take This Job and Shove It,” and now “The Nights the Lights Went out in Georgia.” I don’t mean cute folksy, like the old “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies, but pictures that are about real, recognizable, down-home people. “Georgia” focusing on the trials and tribulations of a youthful country-western duo whose mecca is Nashville, skillfully blends comedy with some of the sterner realities of life on the road.
Based loosely on the Bobby Russell ballad, Bob Bonney’s screenplay introduces us to, refreshingly, a brother and sister team (electrifying performed by Dennis Quaid and Kristy McNichol.) He’s a hotshot singer whose penchant for booze and broads lands him in constant trouble, from which his feisty 16-year-old sister (16 going on 47, as she tartly notes at one point)does her resourceful best to rescue him. She’s the one with the ambition and the determination to land that big recording contract — not for herself, but for big brother. There is obviously a strong bond between the two, an affection that often seems closer to love (although nothing carnal is ever implied.)
After one philandering too many, the couple find themselves in a small Georgia town, where Quaid is promptly brutalized by the town’s mean and lecherous sheriff (Don Stroud), then handed a stiff jail sentence by its redneck judge. McNichol, however, with an assist from a friendly state trooper (Mark Hamill), is able to raise bail by getting him a bartending job at a local roadhouse — although the idea that this might provide the setting for another song session is never far from her mind
Unfortunately, Quaid becomes smitten by Sunny Johnson’s blond charms, only to discover that, albeit reluctantly, she is Stroud’s girl. The consequences are unexpectedly dire; but in the meantime, McNichol has begun to recognize her own talent, and the finale finds her no less determined to make it big in Nashville. (Since the girl is already an RCA recording star, a happy ending is at least implicit.)
While the bones of this story are neither terribly original nor exciting, its construction is super , with scarcely a wasted moment; and the fleshing out is even better. Director Ronald F. Maxwell, although trained in television, has a real instinct for when to put plot on the back burner and let the atmospherics enrich his movie. The seedy, smoke-filled roadhouses, the bleak motels, the menacing emptiness of a small Southern town after midnight — all of these have been eloquently rendered by Bill Butler’s cameras and expertly mobilized by Maxwell to enhance the film’s texture and sense of verisimilitude.
He is also terribly good with actors. For young Quaid, lost among all those brothers in “The Long Riders,” this could be a breakthrough. He is handsome, virile and dynamic (especially when performing with a band), but also displays true warmth and affection in his scenes with McNichol. And McNichol, who co-starred in last year’s “Little Darlings,” offers an intriguingly offbeat, spirited presence, like a tomboy trembling on the brink of femininity. Stroud has never been more effectively menacing, Hamill more engagingly man-boyish, and Arlen Dean Snyder lends mellowed strength to his role of Andy, who runs the biggest roadhouse in Garnett, Ga. When everyone in the cast is working well (including a bit role by J. Don Ferguson as a Nashville Entrepreneur), it’s time to credit the director.
Credit also David Shire for a twangily idiomatic score, Anne Goursaud for an editing job that often strays far from Avco’s printed synopsis, but never shows the gaps, and producers Elliott Geisinger, Howard Kuperman, Ronald Saland and Howard Smith, plus executive producers William and Carole Blake just for getting “The Night the Lights Went out in Georgia” off the ground. Bet their story conferences must have been more like meetings of the board!
ARTHUR KNIGHT, Hollywood Reporter, Friday, June 5, 1981
“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is still another movie inspired by a hit song and still another bittersweet backwoods saga laced with plenty of country and western music.
Yet, as derivative as it is, it has been made fresh and appealing by director Ronald Maxwell and writer Bob Bonney and benefits from the strong casting of Kristy McNichol, Dennis Quaid, and Mark Hamill.
Quaid, last seen as Gene Hackman and Diane Ladd’s funny thickheaded son in “All Night Long,” is a husky, sexy dude, an aspiring country and western singer-composer who lets nothing get in the way of his pursuit of women and good times. He’s kept from going completely off the rails by McNichol, his feisty 16-year-old sister-manager who, in the opening sequence, fends off — with a .357 Magnum, no less — an irate father whose daughter has spent the night in a motel with Quaid. McNichol burns with ambition for Quaid and plots his stardom in Nashville — their long-dreamed of destination — while Quaid plays one-night stands in the sticks. McNichol worries about Quaid’s live-it-up ways but he says “We’ll do all right. You got the smarts; I got the talent.”
A run-in with Georgia tank-town deputy sheriff Don Stroud, however, brings them to a halt. For once, they’ve got to stay in one place for a spell to work out Quaid’s problems with the law, and in the process they find themselves forced to think seriously about their lives for probably the first time ever. Quaid meets a pretty local girl (Sunny Johnson, whom he’s somewhat surprised to discover he really cares about) and Hamill, a state trooper, is smitten with McNichol.. Just possibly, it’s McNichol, not Quaid, who has the real talent as well as the drive to make it in Nashville. Maybe it’s time that McNichol stopped being so possessive of her brother. Anyway, all of a sudden they’re confronted with an awareness they have choices and therefore decisions to make.
Maxwell, who directed McNichol and Tatum O’Neal in the delightful “Little Darlings” and Sissy Spacek and Sally Kellerman in the TV movie “Verna: U.S.O.Girl” delineates the painful coming-of-age process with much compassion. It’s too bad the film’s plot is weighed down by the trite mythology that says small-town Southern sheriffs inevitably are sadists and their judges medievally harsh, but Maxwell has enough deftness and control to keep these clichTs from wrecking the film. That Stroud is, as always, so convincing a menace tends, however, to make nice-guy Hamill seem a chump for not protecting his friends from the full measure of Stroud’s wrath.
Even so, Quaid and McNichol are very likable and are convincing roadhouse entertainers, Hamill makes more of his role than what would seem was on paper. There’s the usual quota of barroom brawls, a number of pleasing songs — several of which Quaid in fact had a hand in writing. But along with the rambunctiousness and the tear-jerking, “The Night The Light Went Out In Georgia” proves to be a film of considerable feeling and tenderness.
KEVIN THOMAS, Los Angeles Times, Friday, August 7, 1981