When acclaimed film director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Mask) focused on Nashville as the setting for his 1993 film, The Thing Called Love, anticipation, especially in Music City, was high. After all, the film was the first since Robert Altman’s controversial 1975 masterpiece, Nashville, to train camera lenses on the inner workings of the music industry, with original songs and romantic entanglements as two of its calling cards. The film also had rising star River Phoenix, who was already an Academy Award- and Golden Globe-nominated actor.
In The Thing Called Love, Phoenix plays aspiring country singer James Wright, a charismatic but relentlessly moody performer who falls in love with a slightly timid Nashville newbie – played by Samantha Mathis – named Miranda Presley, although the character would frequently inform people she’s no relation to Elvis (and once she sings, there’s no mistaking her for country music’s other Miranda, either.) Although much of the original music had a number of critics dismissing the film as one of Bogdanovich’s lesser works, there were those who were still charmed by the film’s young cast, which also included Dermot Mulroney as sweet-natured but naïve singer Kyle Davidson (the rival for Miranda’s affections) and Sandra Bullock, who was a year away from her action-star turn in the box-office smash, Speed.
Bullock’s character, the cheerfully optimistic (and embarrassingly named) Linda Lue Linden, is a Southern Belle-type who gets her moment in the spotlight with “Heaven Knocked on My Door,” a song Bullock co-wrote and sings herself. If you can get past the fluff-stuffed lyrics and cutesy singing voice, it’s a charming curio from a soon-to-be screen icon. Phoenix also wrote an original song for the film, “Lone Star State of Mine.”
The film’s soundtrack, which was released on Nashville’s Giant label, featured none of the stars’ versions of their songs from the film. Instead, Giant acts including Deborah Allen (who appears as herself), Clay Walker and Daron Norwood (who died last month at 49 years old) were included on the official release, which also spotlighted songs sung by country artists who made cameos in the film, including Trisha Yearwood. Others appearing as themselves include Pam Tillis, Kevin Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jo-El Sonnier.
Singer K.T. Oslin has a more significant role, playing Lucy, the no-nonsense owner of the club where the film’s four principal characters audition to perform. The nightspot may look familiar to Nashville tourists and viewers of ABC’s Nashville, as it is actually the Bluebird Café, making its film debut two decades before the listening room would become a weekly TV fixture. The film is also certainly worth a look to compare and contrast some of its characters and the contemporary Nashville regulars. Although it is perhaps unfair to compare a film to a weekly series, it’s obvious that where the film fails miserably (stilted dialogue, broad characterizations and forgettable songs) the TV series has succeeded beautifully, even though any resemblance to Gunnar (Sam Palladio), Avery (Jonathan Jackson) or Scarlett (Clare Bowen) in James, Kyle and Linda Lue, respectively, may be purely coincidental.
In April 1993, Patty Loveless released her single, “Blame It on Your Heart,” from her Only What I Feel LP. Penned by legendary writers Harlan Howard and Kostas, the Number One country hit was later sung by Deboarah Allen on the film’s soundtrack, and featured prominently in The Thing Called Love, being sung by Phoenix during a Bluebird audition in the film, and later onstage with Mathis, in one of the film’s best musical moments.
Although The Thing Called Love was the biggest box-office failure of the year, earning just over $1 million against a $14 million budget, it’s not without its charms and is certainly worth revisiting on DVD. No matter what cinematic failings are on display throughout (and there are many), the film is also worth a second look for Phoenix’s kinetic performance, especially considering that within two months of the film’s August 27th release date, the actor would die of a drug overdose outside L.A.’s Viper Room in the early hours of October 31st, 1993, leaving this as the last film he would complete in his short lifetime. Phoenix was just 23 years old.