Film Talk: The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
The Tribeca Film Festival swings through Los Angeles this weekend and I got the opportunity to watch a couple of the fest’s music-related movies.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia continues the cinematic legacy of the White family. It started with Mike Seeger’s Talking Feet documentary, which featured D. Ray White’s unique mountain dancing skills and then there were the Dancing Outlaw movies that focused on Jesco White, who has become a cult figure. Or as he is called by his sister in the film, “the most famous man in West Virginia.”
This new documentary follows the various members of the White clan, including Jesco, for a year. While there are some samples of Jesco’s dancing, the film mostly dwells a series of drug use and dealing, paroles and convictions that the Whites experience. It’s a fascinating look at poverty-level life in coal country where people don’t really see a future for themselves so they have a “what-the-hell” attitude. But it’s also stands as a very sad, tragic portrait of the White family.
Part of this sadness is that the Whites don’t seem to have any conscience-ness or consciousness about their behavior. For example, one daughter, who goes by the name Kirk, doesn’t understand why she isn’t allowed to take her newborn baby girl home from the hospital even though she does drugs in the recovery room. There’s also a family birthday party for the White matriarch Bertie Mae that involves the family consuming cake and drugs. I could go on, but you get the point.
In a weird way, you hope that there are performing for the cameras. Something like “The Hills” set in the West Virginia hills or the Real Housewives of Boone County (except none of these women really aren’t housewives, at least not in the conventional sense). That this isn’t how that they behavior normally, but you suspect that it really is. The White Family may not be wonderful but they certainly are wild. One town official mentions that there’s was a local boy who got admitted into M.I.T. and asks why he isn’t getting any media. In fact, it probably would have been interesting to see more of the other side of life in Boone County, West Virigina.
There are several musical performances in the movie, including one where Jesco dances to Hank III’s plays a tune. The film, directed by Juilen Nitzberg (who worked on Dancing Outlaw and directed a documentary of backwoods musician Hasil Atkins) and produced by Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame, is the kind of movie where you shake your head in dismay at these folks’ behavior, but you keep watching just to see what they do next.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the bio-pic about Ian Dury, who came out of the ‘80s British New Wave/Punk scene and scored big hits with tunes like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” “Reasons To Be Cheer, Pt. 3” and, of course, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. “ The film really captures Dury’s dark, manic charm and that is due greatly to the terrific lead performance by Andy Serkis (who is best known for playing Gollum in the Hobbit movies) and the inventive direction of Mat Whitecross. While undoubtedly taking some liberties with Dury’s life story, Whitecross and Serkis successfully create a portrait of a man who is haunted by his past and self-destructive in his present but also talented and endearing, despite his repeated poor behavior. Dury contracted polio as a child, which afflicted him throughout his lifetime, seemingly serving both as a motivation and a crutch (both physically and emotionally) for his behavior.
His conflicting behavior played out in his relationships with the key women, his long-suffering wife Betty and his long-suffering girlfriend Denise. The film spends a good deal of time focusing on his relationship (or lack of a relationship) with his son Baxter, who has become in musician now in his own right, which offers a glimpse of the genuine love he has for his son even if he didn’t always show it.
Interestingly, the movie doesn’t dwell much on the music business, so music fans will be left wanting to learn more (much like the even more muddled Pirate Radio). There are some scene dealing with his collaborations with Chaz Jankel, but his other bandmates, the Blockheads, figure little in the movie; more time is spent on the character of the band’s roadie/Dury’s minder. Moreover, little is shown about the ‘80s UK music scene, which is a disappointment since Dury was a part of the very colorful Stiff Records label.
However, director Whitecross does give the movie a lively, inventive look that does recall the spirited New Wave scene and distinguishes it from the standard bio-pic. The highly theatrical opening sequence sets up viewers for a stylized look at – rather than a historical record of – Dury’s life. While the film has flaws, it also has Serkis’ captivating performance and Dury’s quirky, memorable tunes to make this recommendable, particularly for fans of that music scene.
During the Tribeca Film Festival’s stay in Los Angeles, the White documentary plays June 25-July 1 at 10 pm at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and then moves to the Downtown Independent for a run through July 7. The Dury film screens at 2:30 pm at the Sunset 5 from June 25-July 1. For more information, visit www.tribecafiml.com. Also, they both, undoubtedly, will be making more art house circuit showings and appearing in other media (dvd, internet, etc).
– Michael Berick