The Essence of Kenny Rogers Captured Best in “Six Pack” Movie

You won’t find the 1982 film Six Pack archived in the Smithsonian or in the short list of Oscar-awarded efforts. But for thousands, maybe millions of Americans who grew up in the 80’s, Six Pack looms quite large in their little cultural ethos. It’s where they learned to cuss. It’s where they learned about love. And for many, it’s where they were introduced to the coolness of Kenny Rogers, and country music.

The premise was a little bit preposterous upon retrospect of course. A washed up race car driver decides he wants to give it a second shot, catches some kids stealing auto parts in small town Texas, gives chase, finds out they’re orphans, basically adopts them, a corrupt local sheriff gives chase to Kenny and the kids, and both hilarity and drama ensues. Flimsy perhaps, but try telling that to a 12-year-old in the Reagan era, because to them, Six Pack was the ultimate escape fantasy. It was The Dukes of Hazzard in movie form, only with better writing and acting, and no improbable jumps over dry creek beds.

In many ways Six Pack was a kids movie, even though a lot of the themes and dialogue were definitely oriented towards adults. It was one of those “wink wink” movies before the PG-13 rating was implemented where producers purposely included pieces of forbidden fruit to make younger and older audiences interested at the same time. From the six kids in the cast, every adolescent could find someone to identify with, whether it was big sister Breezy played by Diane Lane, Swifty with his big mouth but bigger heart, or the brains of the operation named Doc portrayed by Anthony Michael Hall.

Six Pack was also a country music movie, and not just because Kenny Rogers played the lead role. If you remember Six Pack, it’s hard to forget that it was Merle Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew” playing in the background when Brewster Baker (Kenny Rogers) enters a bar and first reunites with his love interest of the film, Lilah (played by Erin Gray). And of course one of the most iconic moments in the whole film is when Kenny and his six pack are driving down the highway in Kenny’s motorhome with shag carpet on the walls, and the kids break out into an a capella version of “Rocky Top” as they cross the Tennessee border.

Tanya Tucker’s “Texas (When I Die)” also makes an appearance, playing out of the battery-powered belt buckle of a waitress smitten with Kenny Rogers. Crystal Gayle’s “Hello, I Love You,” and Alabama’s “Mountain Music,” and others also made the soundtrack. For many 80’s and early 90’s suburban kids, Six Pack was their first real introduction to country music.

And the film is bookended by one of the greatest songs from the Kenny Rogers canon, and one of the few of his career that he co-wrote in “Love Will Turn You Around.” It was a #1 country song in 1982 when the film was released, also hit #13 on the all genre chart, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The song had the same style of production as “The Gambler” with the weird and random, but ultimately endearing and iconic clicks and pops. The movie added weight to the song, and the song added weight to the movie, similar to “The Gambler.” The memories that are evoked for many just from hearing the first few bars of “Love Will Turn You Around” is one of the reasons some people openly sobbed at word of Kenny’s recent passing.

Six Pack probably shouldn’t hold up to a retrospective viewing, but it does. Swifty’s bad language is hilarious. Kenny Rogers proves to be more than a passable actor. And with Barry Corbin playing the crooked sheriff, the cast was actually pretty good quality. It’s still more shallowly entertaining than thought-provoking as a film, but a scene Kenny Rogers and Diane Lane as the young and frustrated sibling matriarch of the “six pack” share in the latter half of the movie, is as sincere as most any you’ll find in film. And though the plot twists, characters, and outcome of the film are pretty predictable, you can’t help but buy into the eventual moral of Six Pack, which is the same one at the heart of “Love Will Turn You Around,” and a lot of Kenny’s most iconic contributions.

Kenny Rogers has many songs that fans will remember fondly for many years to come, and of course his role as “The Gambler” is what he’ll always be best known for, and what gave him his most lasting nickname. But those that know Kenny Rogers and Six Pack, know this is where the true essence of Kenny Rogers as a rugged troubadour with big aspirations who is tamed by his tender spirit was best captured, at least in visual form.