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Country Goes to the Movies, part XI: The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia

By Robert Loy, May 1998

Before being rescued and rehabilitated by Reba, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was an inexplicably huge mid-Seventies hit for that world-renowned vocalist Vicki Lawrence.

Vicki who?

Aw come on, you know Vicki Lawrence. She started off as a regular on "The Carol Burnett Show," not because she was a great comedienne but because she bore a strong resemblance to Ms. Burnett. From there she went on to host a TV game show based on a board game and starred in "Mama's Family," the sitcom tied with "Step By Step" for worst of all time.

A checkered career, if ever there was one. Still, "The Night the Lights Went Out" was a monster hit, all over the radio. A story song brimming over with sex, betrayal and murder, it seemed a natural to be made into a movie.

The only problem was it was pretty convoluted, with one murder unsolved and some other unanswered questions such as why would a guy being hanged cause the lights all over the Peach State to go out? (I mean I've heard that firing up the electric chair causes prison lights to flicker, but a noose? and the whole darn state?)

And this sister who supposedly loved her brother so much she blew away his unfaithful wife, how come she let the guy swing for a murder he didn't commit? Talk about your buttinski relatives. Thanks a lot, Sis, please don't help me anymore.

Actually, the Hollywood hotshots probably never got that far. They were probably stymied just trying to figure out exactly who shot whom. (And beyond some character names, the movie has absolutely nothing to do with the song, so obviously they never did figure it out.)

One more note about the song before we get to the movie: my hobby is collecting dumb song lyrics and "The Night The Lights..." delivers up a doozy. A guy's wife is running around and a "friend" of the guy is telling him how his beloved bride has seen more covers than the Beatles' "Yesterday." Naturally the guy is upset, and the friend tells him, "Boy, don't you lose your head, cuz to tell you the truth, I been with her myself." Now there you go, the perfect words to cheer a cuckolded chum.

(Oops, I lied. One more note about the silly song before we get to the moronic movie it spawned. If you're ever out searching for your cheating spouse and you find one of her boyfriend's lying in a "puddle of blood" do not - I repeat, do not - fire off the gun you're carrying to alert the police. This will only lead to questions you can't answer and may cause lights to flicker out all over your state.)

The movie gets off to a good start - Vicki Lawrence doesn't sing the opening song. That honor goes to Tanya Tucker, who certainly knows a little about lights going kaput, as many times as she's blacked out. And right away we know there'll be plenty of that good old sex and violence, as Dennis Quaid and a buxom friend are naked in the bed with said friend's jealous husband banging down the door.

Quaid's sister Kristy McNichol saves him by pulling out a .357 Magnum and telling the husband, "Back the hell off, Mister, before I blow yer punkin' right off your red neck." (Yes, I collect bad movie lines as well.)

Turns out Quaid is a singer-songwriter. McNichol is also his manager, chaffeur, chestnut-out-of-the-fire-puller all in one. She looks about 14 but she drinks almost as much as her brother who gargles with Jack Daniels. Their father is dead - "blowed hisself to Jesus" is how they put it.

Quaid had a minor hit some time back, and nobody's banging down his door with offers to host a game show, so sis McNichol is trying to get him to the big time in Nashville.

Meanwhile, they're living in a tiny camper in back of the pickup, singing in places like Homer's Highway Hightail Saloon with the aptly-named White Trash Band, but all Quaid's really interested in is bedding blonde bimbos.

Travis is arrested for public drunkenness and assaulting a police officer. The judge sentences him - without hearing any testimony - to $300 in fines or 40 days picking peas at the prison farm.

McNichol has her own run-in with the law, as she is pulled by state trooper Mark (Luke Skywalker) Hamill. With his babyface and longish hair and unbuttoned uniform shirts, he does not look like any cop one would meet on the streets - especially not in the South. He looks more like a male stripper at some matron's birthday party.

McNichol and Officer Skywalker line up a bartending job for Quaid. To McNichol, it's a way to pay his bail and get back on the road. To Quaid, it's an opportunity to hit on hussies. The one he has his eye on is an Olvia Newton-John lookalike, a floozy with feathered hair (and brains to match). By one of those coincidences that only happen in Hollywood, she happens to be involved with Seth, the sadistic cop who arrested Quaid.

Quaid is having such a great time chasing Seth's girlfriend, Melody, and fighting Seth, he does not want to give up the glamour of bartending in a roadhouse for country music stardom. So McNichol gets up on stage and sings - I guess you could call it singing. Anyway, she says she is going to Nashville by herself. Why I have no idea.

Quaid finally beds Melody, then changes his mind and takes off after his sister for Nashville. Instead of fame and fortune however, he meets up with Smith and Wesson - in the hands of Seth. These two nimnulls end up blowing each other to Jesus, an expiring Quaid driving dramatically off into the hills to die, a tragic loss to bar belles everywhere.

After the funeral McNichol is on the road again, but she's pulled by Officer Skywalker. He declares his love for her. (All through the movie McNichol has been 16 years old, but now without benefit of birthday she's all of a sudden 17, an age the producers probably figured was more appropriate to run away with a police officer.)

Skywalker abandons his patrol vehicle, takes off his gun belt, shirt and pants. (See, I told you he was really a male stripper.) And wearing nothing but his underwear and Smokey Bear hat (this is probably so he can plug up his ears with the straps if McNichol decides to sing on the way) they drive off into the sunset.

A happy ending? No, but you will be happy that this mess has ended.