“Highway 61 Revisited” is a 1965 album by Bob Dylan, and its title refers to the highway that starts in Ontario, Canada, and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana, but what this review will be talking about is a 1991 film. “Highway 61” (H61) is the second film in what has been called a loose 3-part trilogy. It is a stand-alone story. There are no loose ends from “Roadkill” (1989) that needed to be tied up, nor are there any carryovers into, “Hard Core Logo” (1996). They are, however, all road trip films directed by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald and all inject musical references, bands on the road, and fickle musicians into the atmosphere, but is the plot focused on the music in H61 and Roadkill? No. Perhaps the final film does, but that remains to be seen.
Unlike “Roadkill”, H61 is in color, not black & white. It begins in the virtually deserted small, small town of Pickerel Falls in Ontario, Canada, located somewhere on, or near Highway 61 (known as Kings Highway 61 in Canada). The protagonist is Pokey Jones (Don McKellar), who is a barber who owns the town’s barber shop. He’s also an aspiring trumpet player, although he lacks the confidence to let anyone hear him play. He was orphaned at a young age, where the sole item bequeathed to him is his parent’s car, which is a sharp looking Ford (?) He understandably gets attached to the car and tells his troubles to it. He’s always dreamed of traveling to New Orleans but he doesn’t have the courage to leave the town’s parameters.
The other protagonist is Jackie Bangs (Valerie Buhagiar), who begins the movie as a roadie but quickly becomes a roadie-on-the-run when she apparently steals a sizeable bag of some kind of white powder and jumps on a bus. As Pokey is timid and tentative, Jackie is assertive and colorful. Jackie’s also a thief and a con artist.
The story begins when Pokey finds a frozen body laying in a cast iron tub in his back yard, which makes him a hero in the eyes of the town; the hero finds himself and his story on the paper’s front page. Jackie, who randomly gets off the bus, sees the headline. Being an opportunist, she hatches a plot to get her white powder across the border. She enlists the hapless Pokey in her plot, and so the road trip begins. The plan is to strap “Jackie’s brother” in his coffin to the top of the car and drive it to New Orleans for a funeral in two days. Or so Pokey thinks. As timid as Pokey is, the need of a (hot) grieving sister to get her brother to his funeral overrides it.
Where “Roadkill” kept it simple, H61 makes things interesting by introducing Mr. Skin (a.k.a Satan)(played with great charm by Earl Pastko). Mr. Skin is a motivated marketer, and he’s willing to give just about any deal to just about anyone if they sign their souls over on the dotted line. Of course he doesn’t collect until they’ve passed on, but he’s willing to wait. How he intersects Pokey and Jackie’s story is that “Jackie’s brother” is the first client who signed on the dotted line to die, and Mr. Skin comes to town to collect.
Like, “Roadkill”, Pokey and Jackie meet some eccentric characters along the way, including Mr. Watson (played by Peter Breck, who you may remember as Nick Barkley on the 1965 TV series, The Big Valley), who lives in a bus with his three very young daughters (maybe 7, 8, and 9 years old) who sing, but not all that well, where dad dreams of his baby girls being stars. They visit a reclusive rock star and his spaced out babe in their mansion, served by Nathan the Manservant (Larry Hudson, who played cab driver, Buddie, in “Roadkill”).
Pokey and Jackie are entertaining characters and there is chemistry between them in H61. Their personalities complement each other’s. Mr. Watson is a whacked out individual that you don’t know whether to feel sorry for or scared of or both. The rock star is a spoiled brat, and his spaced out woman borders on creepy. Although the connection between the protagonists is good, it is Mr. Skin who comes close to stealing the show. As he chases them down Highway 61 and encounters his potential clients he never fails to entertain.
I liked the story line in H61 as it was much better-developed than it was in “Roadkill”. The main characters have genuine chemistry and how their relationship develops over time is precious. I like the introduction of a villain chasing them that has some depth and humor. I loved watching Satan play BINGO. I like the many shots of different parts of Canada and the US along the highway. They even visit Bob Dylan’s childhood home! I also liked the soundtrack on this, although most of the time it was difficult to hear it.
Lessons learned from “Highway 61”? Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to make your dreams come true. Sometimes things are simply coincidences and there is no deeper meaning. Love can be transformative.
Romantics with a sense of adventure would like this movie. People who are into the punk music of 1991 would love this film. The soundtrack has quite a lineup: “My Way or the Highway” by The Razorbacks; “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” By Ramones; “Roll On Down the Highway” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive; “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies; “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones; “Hard Ball” by Blackglama; “Dance” by Acid Test; “The Erlking” by Jellyfishbabies; “Sally On” by Sam Larkin; “Mamas Waiting” by Jane Hawley; “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus” by Anne Marie Stern, Carlton Rance, Vannessa Younger and Rosie Westney; “Big Wind is a Comin’” by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee; “Put Your Head On” by The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir; “Can’t Change This World” by Art Bergmann; “Please Come Back Home” by Roy McCalla; “Into the Land of the Fire”, “War”, and “Get Outta Nowhere” by Nash the Slash (and Maria Piazza on “War”; and “Zydeco Heehaw” by Boozoo Chavis.
I don’t see an MPAA or any other kind of rating on it; there are some incidents of sex & brief nudity, two incidents of disturbing content; zero (?) incidences of profanity, some alcohol & smoking, multiple incidents of firearms display and use. My final word on this film is: not-Hollywood, entertaining, unconventional love story.
Score on a scale of 0-5 = 4.5