One of the many good things you can say about director Barr Weissman's documentary about the Drive-By Truckers, "The Secret to a Happy Ending," is that in order to get a lot out of it, you really have to be a fan of the band, which he clearly is.
That's because what he's made here, while it is indeed an engaging portrait of the Southern rockers who have been at it now, rather amazingly, for more than 20 years, is far from anything approaching a VH1-style conventional musical biopic.
Instead Weissman, who has made a living as a movie editor and has directed at least two self-released previous documentaries I'd love to be able to see, uses the band's songs themselves, which at their best really are stories, to tell the story on film.
It starts, appropriately enough, with Patterson Hood, who along with Weissman and drummer Brad Morgan were on hand for Friday night's Georgia premiere to close out the Atlanta Film Festival, playing "Bulldozers and Dirt" on the mandolin. This early DBT's track perfectly sets the stage for a look at the world from which the band sprang and still calls home, the American South.
And along with letting the band members tell their stories through word and song, Weissman introduces moviegoers to some of the most colorful characters who populate their musical world, including a visit with the ancient George A. Johnson, immortalized in the Patterson Hood song "Sands of Iwo Jima." Hearing Hood talk about his great-uncle's life as you see Johnson hold Hood's sleeping baby girl is a moment almost too tender to take. There's also an extended look at the life of Gregory Dean Smalley, the Atlanta musician who died way too early and was "The Living Bubba," and a visit with Wes Freed, who has created the artwork for every DBT's album since "Southern Rock Opera."
But the main stars, of course, are the band members themselves, and Weissman clearly had warts-and-all access during the five years or so he spent with them on the road, and the movie perhaps paradoxically gets better and better as the band starts to almost unravel. "A Blessing and a Curse," which I happen to be listening to right now, has grown into my favorite DBT's record, with "Decoration Day" a close second. It's easily the band's most intimate album, so it's often hard to watch the pain (including the end of the marriage of band member Shonna Tucker and former member Jason Isbell) that went into making it.
It led, of course, to Isbell eventually quitting the band, but though I won't reveal exactly how, it also came close to bringing about the demise of the whole group too. But this is, in the end, a movie made by an albeitly very talented fan of the band, but in the end a fan just the same, so he packs the movie with little moments that will make you smile even in this "World of Hurt." My favorite of all would have to be Mike Cooley's solo performance of "Space City" and the heartbreaking story behind it.
In the end, like I said, this isn't a movie likely to win many converts, but for fans, it's a complete and completely engaging portrait of a band that will hopefully just keep on rocking for at least another 10 years or so. It's currently making the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it, and will eventually of course be available at Netflix, Amazon, etc., and I'll certainly let you know about that when it comes.
For the closing night of the Atlanta Film Festival, Hood, Weissman and Morgan took questions from the audience, and that's when Hood revealed just why it took so long for the movie to be completed. Weissman was ready to wrap things in 2005, after the completion of "A Blessing and A Curse," but as Hood pointed out, at that point the title "The Secret to a Happy Ending" would just have been an entire misnomer. At Hood's request, he ended up sticking around for another two years or so, when things ended on a much better note (and if you haven't bought the DBT's latest, "The Big To-Do," do so immediately ... it's their best in the last five years or so.)
After the Q&A, Reel Fanatic fave Ray McKinnon took the stage, and the band unveiled the "video" for "This F*****g Job," which is really a short film starring McKinnon and directed by "That Evening Sun" director Scott Teems. Finish that off with a short performance by Hood, Morgan and new Drive-By Trucker Jay Gonzalez, and you certainly have the makings of a perfect evening out. And that's exactly what I am now. Peace out.