Thursday, October 23, 2008

Speaking of hillbillies and music . . .

Hillbillies Jammin'
German-Funded, American-Filmed

Shot on location in the Ozark Mountains, generally southwestern Missouri, but also in Lawrence, Kansas, this looks like a good film about hillbillies and hillbilly music even if it is a documentary largely set in the state of 'misery' rather than the great state of Arkansas.

The film is already getting some international attention:
Rick Minnich's Homemade Hillbilly Jam . . . [is] a portrait of dying musical traditions in rural Missouri, which also makes its UK debut in Sheffield. The third feature-length documentary by the US-born, Berlin-based director is another quirky insight into an America that most Americans would barely recognise.

"It's a culture that is fading but putting up a good fight," Minnich says. "Maybe there is more of a movement of people finding these subcultures within their own culture. The response in North America to Homemade Hillbilly Jam has been, 'Wow, are there still people like that?' They don't necessarily want to live that way, but they are glad that way of life exists."
That's from Stephen Dalton, writing "What’s up? Documentaries" for UK's Times Online (September 29, 2008). In an online interview -- "Homemade Hillbilly Jam: Q&A with director Rick Minnich" -- by Nigel A. Messenger for Phase 9 Entertainment (October 23, 2008), the filmmaker, Rick Minnich, responds to some questions:
What was the basis for the idea for your film?

I met the guys from the band Big Smith through the making of my previous film Heaven on Earth in Branson, Missouri several years ago. They seemed like the antithesis of the pseudo-hillbilly showtown Branson. After drowning in Branson's flashiness, I was eager to discover what lie beyond the town's borders. What I discovered was Big Smith and the extended Bilyeu family.

Did a particular incident/event inspire it?

The husband of one of Big Smith's cousins Joy Bilyeu gave me a copy of the band's debut CD. I listened to it once, and didn't think much about it. But when I gave it another shot about a year later, I knew immediately that there was more to the story than meets the eyes and ears. I had to meet these guys, and once I did, I was hooked. The deciding moment was meeting Grandma Thelma on her deathbed, and filming her and her grandson Mark singing together only days before she died. I knew at that moment that I had to make a film about this family. One-and-one-half years later, I was doing it.

What aspect of the filmmaking process was most enjoyable/challenging and why?

Hanging out with Big Smith was loads of fun. They're a bunch of ordinary guys with a ton of musical talent. Whenever they get together, they can't help but break out into song. The Thanksgiving dinner scene was one of the highlights, and definitely the most wonderful Thanksgiving celebration I've ever been a part of. The most challenging part of the film was trying to find a way to mould my fascination with hillbilly culture into a tangible form with somewhat of a storyline. Most of this happened in the editing room thanks to the help of my co-writer and editor Matt Sweetwood (also an American residing in Germany).
The interviewer, Nigel Messenger, adds these words describing the film:
The brothers and cousins who make up the band Big Smith are proud to consider themselves Hillbillies. They combine traditional roots of Scots-Irish jigs, church music and folk songs handed down over generations, with more modern elements of country and western and a sensibility they describe as 'neo-hillbilly'. Minnich's beautifully shot film celebrates Missouri's Ozark countryside and the way music can transcend conflicting attitudes, to bring and hold generations together.
There's also a good interview by Melissa McCarthy in her "Bulletin Message" column for Shooting People, in which she catches Rick Minnich at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival UK Tour. I especially liked this remark by Minnich:
Audiences in the South (such as at the US premiere in Hot Springs, Arkansas -- about four hours from where we shot the film) felt that the film is very much about themselves, and made comments such as, "Finally someone made a film about us!"
That 'us' would be people like Mark Bilyeu, of Springfield, Missouri's hillbilly band Big Smith, which appears in the film. Here's what Christianity Today has to say about Bilyeu and that band in an article by Jeffery Overstreet, "Watch . . . and Listen," for his column "Through a Screen Darkly" (October 21, 2008):
We meet 34-year-old singer/songwriter Mark Bilyeu of the popular folk-rock band Big Smith, and he invites us to his family's Thanksgiving dinner -- several generations of Ozark tradition gathered around one table on a brisk autumn day. They hold hands for a prayer, expressing their hope that the next generation will "learn to love Jesus in the same way."

The scene may seem foreign, or as familiar as canned cranberries. But what is likely to surprise most viewers is what happens after dinner, when the Bilyeus gather in the living room with mandolins and electric guitars. Have you ever heard "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" sung to washboard percussion? "Any family can get together and watch football," says Mark, "but not every family can get together and play five guitars at once and make it sound halfway decent."

He explains that the drive to keep Big Smith together has everything to do with preserving the traditions of his elders. "There's so much about our everyday existence that's not worth keeping. When you come upon something that is worth keeping, you really want to hold onto it . . . . There are some things that are timeless, and we'll hold on to those things." And, as if to prove it, he sings a song of his grandmother, from memory, in an empty chapel.
I think that I've got to see this documentary, which will probably never come to South Korea but which will eventually appear on DVD, I reckon, and we can then all learn about jammin' with Ozark hillbillies.

Of course, I already know a little about that.

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At 12:46 PM, Blogger Al-Ozarka said...

Cool! Big Smith plays Mountain View on occasion.

At 1:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Are they good?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They are.

And the family was great, pre-Big Smith, at Reed's Spring Junction, Missouri in 1988.


At 12:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK.

Jeffery Hodges

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