Rip Torn plays Maury Dann, a country singer who is the stuff of VH1 Legends. He boozes, pops pills, and treats women like property. Disposable property. He mostly lives on the road, in the back of his low-rent limo, flanked by his long-time girlfriend on one side and a new pick-up on the other: a young woman who works as a store clerk in some podunk town he and the band played a couple jumps back. Maury isn't too big on names. Of places or people.
He's a decent musician. But this isn't a concert movie. Mostly this movie just observes Maury's behavior towards the people around him. He's a bit of a despicable douchebag, but he has talent. Rip Torn performs a couple of times in this movie: once, at the beginning, for a crowd at an anonymous shitkicker bar, and again, later, by himself. Both times he acquits himself well. The later performance is especially poignant, as it is the only time you get to see him working on his music, which is presumably his passion. He's all by himself in a hotel room, swilling Coca-Cola to jazz himself out of an alcholic funk, and strumming on his acoustic guitar. He consults legal pads with lyrics scribbled on them. There's a closeup of his face, as he plays, eyes closed, his ragged voice barely stage worthy. Is the music an escape from his pain? Maybe his pain is an escape from the music.
There are other people in his caravan: a slick, reptilian, hard-driving agent from the big city, who tries to keep Maury on task; fellow musicians; Maury's deranged mother; a youngblood wannabee musician who begs Maury to let him join the band; and later on we even get to meet the wife and kids Maury abandoned.
The movie presents a damaged character, in thrall to his addictions, his appetites, and does not water down his vile attitudes towards women, or his profound, dangerous immaturity. Rip Torn doesn't so much perform the character, as embody him. His approach is rather low key, which is also the approach of the movie: not a lot of yelling, or soul-searching speeches, just behavior, keenly observed. It's all in how Maury gets up in the morning. It's in his diet of fried chicken, Coca-Cola, amphetamines, whiskey, and the occasional marijuana joint. It's the way Maury carries himself, like the pain is never far from the surface. It's in how, even when he sleeps, he never seems to get any rest.
The movie seems to suggest that a guy like Maury is constantly on the road because he needs the sensation of constant movement. The music really does seem like an afterthought at times, though Maury plays very well. Maybe he feels he has to live the Life in order to be authentic to the fans. Maybe it's something else.
The movie gives a realistic sense of what it was like in the 1960s and 1970s to be a country western band on the road, and all the shit work and drudgery that goes into being on tour: negotiating the nightly wage from the venue manager, popping in for a guest appearance on local radio stations, partying and playing poker all night in ratty motel rooms, etc. But at the heart of it all is Maury Dann, and the revelation of his tormented character.