Rock stars that attempt to make the move from the stage to the big screen are often met with cynicism and outright condemnation. Just look at how the likes of David Bowie, Sting and especially Madonna have been regarded by critics. With the notable exception of Bowie, most of the criticism has been warranted as either their on-stage charisma failed to translate on-screen or they just delivered terrible performances. And so, when John Mellencamp made, not just his acting debut, but also directing, it was anticipated as merely the latest rock star hubris.
However, several critics were surprised at how good Falling from Grace (1992) was. Mellencamp was smart in that he didn’t stray far from his strengths by portraying a successful singer/songwriter who returns home to face his past. Known for making music that not only celebrates America’s heartland, but also examines its darker aspects, he wisely asked author Larry McMurtry to write the screenplay. His novels Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show feature the kinds of characters that Mellencamp wrote about in many of his songs so the two of them seemed like a good fit. Unfortunately, Falling from Grace was barely released in theaters and tanked at the box office. It was quickly relegated to obscurity and regarded as yet another example of rock star folly, but deserves to be rediscovered.
Bud Parks (John Mellencamp) is a successful musician who returns home for his grandfather’s 80th birthday and on the surface he’s greeted with warm smiles and open arms, but old wounds are soon reopened. As with his songs, Mellencamp has a good eye for the details of life in Middle America with its small-towns populated by pickup trucks of everyday people struggling to get by. Bud’s sister Sally (Deirdre O’Connell) is upset because her husband Mitch (John Prine) drinks too much and is never around. Bud’s brother Parker (Brent Huff) is married to P.J. (Kay Lenz), the musician’s high school sweetheart. There’s still something between her and Bud, which surfaces upon his return, much to the chagrin of his wife Alice (Mariel Hemingway). The main source of strife stems from Bud’s father Speck (Claude Akins), a real piece of work whose past bad behavior casts a dark cloud over the entire family.
Falling from Grace is a character-driven film propelled by their behavior as opposed to the plot. Fortunately, McMurtry’s script is populated by well-developed characters with complicated relationships between them. As he demonstrated with books like The Last Picture Show, McMurtry has an innate understanding of how small-towns work and the secrets that exist in the people that populate them. Mellencamp came from this kind of town and so he is able to tap into the author’s sensibilities rather comfortably and confidently for he not only knows these people, he is one of them. As a result, we get a montage of picturesque small-town America and Bud interacting with various townsfolk. Where an outsider might look at these people condescendingly, Mellencamp has an affinity and affection for them.
On the acting front, Mellencamp wisely doesn’t stray from his comfort zone, playing a character close to himself and thanks to the music videos he’s done over the years, the singer is comfortable in front of the camera. Some reviewers saw Falling from Grace as a vanity project, but Mellencamp portrays Bud as a character full of flaws. One gets the impression that Bud left town to avoid turning out like his father and was successful, but returning has also brought back old habits. Alice even calls him on it, reminding him that he didn’t grow up until he left town and that if he stays home he’ll end up just like Speck. Mellencamp understands this push and pull dynamic all too well because he’s lived it. He gets and conveys the contradictions that exist within Bud, which is quite an accomplishment from a novice actor.
It helps that Mellencamp surrounds himself with veteran actors like Mariel Hemingway and Claude Akins, with the former playing Bud’s strong and smart wife, and the latter playing his monstrous father. Hemingway eschews the trophy wife stereotype by playing a woman that loves her husband, but refuses to live in a toxic environment like the one she finds herself upon returning with Bud to his hometown. Akins is very good as an abusive man who specializes in sleeping with married women and who is used to getting what he wants, not caring who he hurts in the process.
Originally, John Mellencamp was approached to star in films like the ones Elvis Presley did, but he wasn’t interested nor did he want to make his life story. He had always written songs about small-towns and was interested in making a film about one that would be an extension of his songwriting. Around 1982 or 1983, he got together with long-time friend and author Larry McMurtry at his home in Indiana. He stayed with Mellencamp for a week and during that time they talked about a story involving a successful Los Angeles country singer who returns to his small-town to rediscover his roots. They both agreed that they would not romanticize the subject as Mellencamp remarked, “I never liked putting rose-colored glasses on things.” McMurtry returned home and wrote the screenplay, which was then called The Kentuckian. The project bounced around four different studios over 10 years with an initial budget of $20 million, but none of them were willing to finance it unless Mellencamp sang in it and did not direct. He stuck to his guns and Columbia Pictures eventually agreed to back it, but only if he could do it for a lean $3 million. The singer agreed.
Prior to making the film, Mellencamp had come off a grueling tour for The Lonesome Jubilee album and contemplated retiring from touring. He took up oil painting as a hobby, which excited him more than making albums. Three years and one divorce later, he had finished another record and made Falling from Grace. In order to get the film made on a modest budget, Mellencamp called in a lot of favors from friends and acquaintances. Appearing in music videos helped Mellencamp act in front of the camera, but running a group of musicians helped prepare him for directing: “In rock ‘n’ roll you’ve got the roadies; in movies you’ve got all the technical people. Then there’s the talent – the guys in the band and the actors. In both jobs, you move these people around and direct them.”
Over that time, the film’s title had changed to Riding the Cage until principal photography when Larry Crane, one of Mellencamp’s bandmates, wrote a song called, “Falling from Grace.” Mellencamp liked it so much that he decided to name the film after it. Not surprisingly, music plays an important role in the film. In addition to Crane’s song, Nanci Griffith supplied one called “Cradle of the Interstate,” Janis Ian provided “Days Like These,” and Mellencamp wrote “Sweet Suzanne,” assembling a group to record it that consisted of himself, McMurtry’s son James, Joe Ely, Dwight Yoakam, and John Prine, who also wrote a song called, “All the Best” for the film.
Falling from Grace received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Mellencamp turns out to have a real filmmaking gift. His film is perceptive and subtle, and doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that because something is real, it makes good fiction. The characters created here with McMurtry are three-dimensional and full realized.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman called it, “a movie of heart, subtlety, and dramatic zest.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Mellencamp does bring out the naturalness of his actors, and he has assembled a large and believable cast. Although his own performance is often passive, he is surrounded by characters who have a galvanizing effect.”
However, the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “This thorough embarrassment, the cinematic version of vanity publishing, takes 45 minutes to begin to be about anything … and ends up being about nothing at all – except Mellencamp’s desire to direct a movie starring himself.” USA Today gave it two out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “The result, sincere to a fault, plays like a collection of soul-bearing scenes that couldn’t be jury-rigged to dramatic effect.” Mellencamp blamed the film’s commercial failure on a lack of advertising from the studio and said, “It wasn’t something that could come out of the chute real strong and finish real quick, and make millions for the company … Ten years ago – 20 years, maybe – people found those little movies interesting. They just don’t anymore.”
Bud is used to the rarefied atmosphere of a celebrity where everyone tells him what he wants to hear and this makes him susceptible to bad habits. He’s grounded by the women in his life – his wife and his sister – that aren’t afraid to call him on his bad behavior, but it is ultimately up to him to change. Once he realizes this and then acts on it can he finally put the past behind him. Falling from Grace is a slice of Americana, albeit one that celebrates the postcard perfect façade as well as exposing the dirty secrets that exists underneath. This film is a potent example of the old adage that you can’t go home again.
Bream, Jon. “Renaissance Rocker.” Star Tribune. March 6, 1992.
Falling from Grace Production Notes 1992.
Graff, Gary. “Mellencamp Film Finished After 9 Years.” Baltimore Sun. November 20, 1991.
Harris, Paul A. “The World’s A Canvas for John Mellencamp.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 22, 1992.
Kot, Greg. “Mellencamp Tries His Hand at Film.” Chicago Tribune. January 19, 1992.
Larsen, Dave. “There’s Still A Little Cougar in the Art and Artistry of John Mellencamp.” Vancouver Sun. February 26, 1992.
MacInnis, Craig. “No American Fool.” Toronto Star. February 16, 1992.