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Harmony Cats

VANCOUVER -- Movies and country music haven't often mixed, but real affection for the suds 'n' sawdust subculture marks this low-budget Canadian pic, which has enough quirky charms to win over a non-country crowd as well. Now entering wide Canadian release, pic will need major U.S. backing to travel far beyond the art-house circuit south of the border, but it'll sure-as-shootin' kick up its heels in cable and video markets.

VANCOUVER — Movies and country music haven’t often mixed, but real affection for the suds ‘n’ sawdust subculture marks this low-budget Canadian pic, which has enough quirky charms to win over a non-country crowd as well. Now entering wide Canadian release, pic will need major U.S. backing to travel far beyond the art-house circuit south of the border, but it’ll sure-as-shootin’ kick up its heels in cable and video markets.

Set in Vancouver and environs, story follows priggish — and suddenly out-of-work — symphony violinist Graham Braithwaite (Kim Coates) through his descent into hillbilly hell when he’s drafted to play bass in the low-rent Harmony Cats, a traveling band led by almost-washed-up Frank Hay (regional blues great and “Wiseguy” veteran Jim Byrnes).

An instant culture-clash-on-wheels, band has a jazzhead drummer (Alec Willows), headbanging guitarist (Byron Lucas), 300-pound roadie (Squatch Ward) and rough den-mother manager (Beverley Elliott).

It also features Hay’s sweet-voiced daughter Debbie (Lisa Brokop), in whom the slowly unlimbering Graham sees much potential — musically and romantically.

Natch, this doesn’t sit well with the highfalutin fiddler’s live-in girlfriend (Charlene Fernetz), or her interfering sister (Tamsin Kelsey).

Meanwhile, a cool Nashville producer (Hoyt Axton) is also sniffing around the young singer.

The love-and-career stuff is fairly routine. What sticks is the shuffling, edgy interplay of the mismatched musicians, as well as the evident pleasure had by all the performers.

Brokop, a natural talent and first-time thesp, isn’t asked for a lot of variety, and doesn’t deliver it. When she sings, though, the screen lights up, and she’s guided well by the pros around her, particularly the grizzled, paternal and unexpectedly fiery Byrnes.

Coates departs from his typical thin-lipped baddies (he tormented Bruce Willis in “The Last Boy Scout”) with remarkable comic flair; he’s a fish-out-of-water who abrades those around him, yet somehow never loses his essential grace. Even funnier is offbeat Willows as the deadpan drummer.

It helps that David King’s script is full of witty, literate flourishes and hearty, “Northern Exposure”-style utopianism. Sticky cliches are avoided, even when they seem to be looming.

Director Sandy Wilson (“My American Cousin”) keeps the tone consistently light without robbing the sometimes ornery characters of their tangible humanity.

Production values far outstrip the $ 1.5 million spent, and the score contains many memorable songs (part of a rare-for-Canada soundtrack album tie-in).

Harmony Cats

(Musical comedy-drama -- Canadian -- Color)

  • Production: An Alan Morinis-Richard Davis production, in association with BC Film/NFB/CBC. Produced by Morinis, Davis. Directed by Sandy Wilson. Screenplay, David King.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Philip Linzey; editor, Debra Rurak, Haida Paul; music, Graeme Coleman, Bill Buckingham; production design, Lynne Stopkewich; art direction, Eric McNab; sound, Daryl Powell, R. Tim Richardson; assistant director, Robert Petrovicz; casting, Stuart Aikins. Reviewed at the Vancouver Centre Cinema, Vancouver, May 2, 1993. Running time: 104 min.
  • With: Graham Brathwaite ... Kim Coates Frank Hay ... Jim Byrnes Debbie Hay ... Lisa Brokop Bill Stratton ... Hoyt Axton Jane Pitkeithly ... Charlene Fernetz Reg ... Alec Willows Alma ... Beverley Elliott Alan ... Byron Lucas Rocky ... Dave 'Squatch' Ward Sandra ... Tamsin Kelsey
  • Music By: