Goin' Down South...

In anticipation of seeing my friend and former Greylight Theatre collaborator Bob Streit's new documentary about Hugh DeNeal and the caustic acoustic cacophony of the best band to ever rise from the deep south of Illinois, The Woodbox Gang, I thought I would recommend a few other like-minded musical docs that are worth seeking out.  Streit's latest film, Confidence Man (screening this weekend at the St. Louis International Film Festival), traces the career of DeNeal and his band, weaving "a cautionary tale about how playing dark bluegrass, hosting High-Yield Investment Programs online and touring with a mortgage to pay can land you in Leavenworth Prison."  

When the Woodbox Gang were just beginning, they were the house band at a coffee shop called Mungo Jerry's in Murphysboro, IL where yours truly was a frequent barista.  The band was just a three-piece then, armed with little more than acoustic guitars, washboards, and spoons.  From the moment they broke out the didjeridoo and reved up a tune called "Showdown," to this day one of my favorites, I was forever a Woodbox Gang fan and a devotee of the Trashcan Americana genre, of which they were the sole purveyors.  

The Gang "back in the day" at Mungo Jerry's Coffeehouse
In the spirit of great musical journeys, and the hardships that come with making great music, here are a few music doc recommendations that will compliment Steit's accomplishment in uncovering this great piece of music history through film:

Wilco - I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
1.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart:  A Film About Wilco, dir. Sam Jones, 2002 - If you want to flip back a few pages in the  history of the Southern Illinois and Eastern Missouri music scene, you will find the band that is often sighted as the progenitors of alt-country, new Americana, cow punk, or whatever you want to call it:  Uncle Tupelo.  The band famously covered the song "No Depression," which became one of the monikers for their progressive genre of music, as well as the name of the music mag that covered other Americana musicians, new and old.  One of the singer-songwriters in Uncle Tupelo was Jeff Tweedy, who would go on to be the continually and restlessly evolving front man of the band Wilco.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart not only tells a jaw-dropping tale of one of the greatest American bands in recent history, their record company woes, and their ultimate triumph in being able to put out their music their way and get paid in the process, but also marks a unique transitional period in the history of the music recording and distributing business.  The film is an engaging portrait of a hard-working band taking creative risks, and emerging with what may be remembered as the finest album of their career, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  A rare music documentary that balances being a great concert film with an unfolding narrative through line.  The Palm Pictures dvd also includes some really worthwhile extra concert footage on a second disc.

Daniel Johnston - The Devil and Daniel Johnston
2.  The Devil and Daniel Johnston, dir. Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005 - Some consider this film in the same group of "outsider artist" documentaries as Jessica Yu's In The Realms of the Unreal and Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol, and although there are some criticisms of the audiences who appreciate those works being elitist, derisive art snobs who are simply in search of the next weirdo to praise and then forget about, the fact of the matter is that they are all great films.  And, in the case of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, it is hard to walk away from it without humming a few lovely melodies, and without understanding that there is some real musical genius at work with that strange and troubled man.  An insightful study of the relationship between mental illness and creativity, this is a great documentary that puts a fringe musical phenomenon in proper perspective.  Feuerzeig also directed the equally essential documentary Half Japanese:  The Band Who Would Be King (1993), which contains the greatest rock-geek talking head moments in the history of rock-docs.  Check it out...if you have the intestinal fortitude to really check these bands out, that is.

Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood
Drive-By Truckers:  Dirty South Live @ 40 Watt
3.  Drive-By Truckers:  Dirty South Live @ 40 Watt, dir. Eleanor (aka Shawn Foster), 2005 - Although I anticipate seeing the 2009 documentary on the Drive-By Truckers, The Secret to A Happy Ending, which evidently chronicles three tumultuous years of the band's career, I have to say that it will be hard to beat Live @ 40 Watt for documenting the band at their peak, bringing the house down with the triple front man assault of Isbell, Hood, and Cooly.  This really doesn't fit into the same category of documentary film making that the aforementioned films do, as it is primarily just concert footage cut together with the occasional backstage banter.  But, as a chance to be in a room with one of the great American rock bands, playing what will most likely be the finest set-list of their careers, Live @ 40 Watt is an exceptional gift.  Impeccable songwriting, and a pure, honest guitar assault that will rectify all the bad experiences you've ever had with less than adequate guitar wanking.

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