The Reelist: The Singular Will Oldham
Music and film have a legendary and ever-friendly relationship. Since the dawn of time (or film), musicians have been making waves on the big screen, a tradition that stretches back to the likes of Oscar winner Frank Sinatra.
For this week's Reelist, however, we go off the beaten musicians-on-film path for a look at another breed of artiste who has crossed over, in his own unique way, to the (arthouse) multiplex: Will Oldham. Since 1993, he's been releasing albums of broken, rusty punk Americana under a variety of pseudonyms (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, etc.), making him an elderstatesman within the nexus of the indie rock scene of the '90s and '00s. His songs are haunted, moving, and sometimes quite funny; his 1999 masterpiece, I See a Darkness, received a stamp of approval from Johnny Cash himself, who chose to cover the title track on one of his final albums. This year, Oldham even ranked a New Yorker profile, "The Pretender," by Kelefa Sanneh.
It's quite likely that you're either unfamiliar or overly familiar with Oldham's work, both in music and on film. As a musician, he's in the lineage of a Tom Waits or a Lyle Lovett: eccentric artists who are career performers. All three men have had staying power over the decades, and their albums number in the double digits. And since they're so willfully idiosyncratic, with real-person, weathered mugs and charismatic personae, they translate in a fascinating way to film. (Both Waits and Lovett did quite well for themselves in Robert Altman's classic Short Cuts: remember Lovett's angry baker, torturing a grief-stricken couple with his menacing recitation of "Casey at the Bat?")
Unlike Waits and Lovett, Oldham started out as an actor before he became a musician. After a leading role in John Sayles' Matewan at 17, he moved to L.A. to pursue more roles and ended up being cast in a Baby Jessica TV movie. Twenty years down the line, however, he's inching back into films and other media, and oftentimes, his choices are stellar examples of current Southern filmmaking. Carving out a career like Oldham's takes an unerringly accurate instinct for what's interesting in arts, culture, and the human condition. The many ways in which his unique persona has been captured on film is a story in and of itself—focusing on what's intriguing in cinema today—and we believe his oeuvre warrants a closer look.
Dir. John Sayles (1985)
In Sayles' critically lauded dramatization of the infamous coal miners' strike and uprising in rural 1920s West Virginia, Oldham plays 15-year-old preacher Danny Radnor. Playing one of two fictional characters in the film (handsome young Chris Cooper's union organizer lead is the other), a surprisingly little Will Oldham gives a fervent performance as a true believer. The film, which also stars Sayles staple David Straithairn, James Earl Jones, and Mary McDonnell, has a striking visual style (thanks to legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler) and an authentically Appalachian soundtrack that's right up Oldham's alley.
Dir. Phil Morrison (2005)
Phil Morrison's quiet stunner was one of the best films of 2005. While it's probably best known as the small indie that gave Amy Adams her breakout role and first Oscar nomination, it's more than just Adams' (excellent) performance. On paper, it could easily be a tired culture-clash story of a chic Chicago gallerista and her new husband meeting his family in North Carolina. Morrison films the script gracefully and with an elliptical style, focusing on the artifacts in the family home and the small details therein, and he lets the acting remain fresh and natural. Oldham has a small but crucial role in the begining as a gallery scout who stumbles upon a brilliant outsider artist. His yokel presence is a bellwether for what the film's interested in—like his music, it's playing with how we perceive the South and "southernness." Morrison, who started out making great indie rock videos (Yo La Tengo, "Sugar Cube,") went on to direct the Apple "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" commercials.
Dir. Todd Rohal (2006)
Rohal's film is, quite frankly, divisive. Either you are on its willfully odd and absurdist wavelength, or you find it deeply, angrily unsatisfying. There is no middle ground. Oldham is an anchor of sorts in this film, playing a nebbishy part-time demolition derby driver, and what driving plot there is comes from his character's "disappearance." His ten-year-old best friend Turkeylegs takes it upon herself to find him. That said, the cineastes at Benten Films took the film out of festival hell and released a lovingly packaged DVD last year, featuring an essay by director David Gordon Green,* in which he calls the film "special" and "too good."
*Oldham wrote an opening song, "All these Vicious Horses," for the opening scene of Green's 2003 flick All the Real Girls. In a recent A.V. Club interview, Oldham opined on music in movies, calling Wes Anderson and his iPod a "cancerous" approach to scoring film and arguing that "music should be made for movies."
Dir. Kelly Reichardt (2006, 2008)
In Reichardt's wonderful Old Joy, Oldham stars as a man who goes camping with his old best friend in the Pacific Northwest. Oldham's a lost soul, hippie drifter type and his friend Mark (Daniel London) is a yuppified ex-hipster with a baby on the way. Not much happens, plot-wise, in this film, but that's where the beauty comes in: everything happens. It's a devastating study of two men on different paths, of what happens when a friendship dissolves, and it marked Reichardt as a remarkably astute director.
Two years later, Oldham has a small, creepy role in Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt's small, quietly beautiful film starring an understated and brilliant Michelle Williams. Again, it's a simple story, but the film is full of rich, expressive moments in a luminous northwest landscape. If you missed this film last year—and you probably did—you can rent it today. Oldham appears to be a bit of a muse to Reichardt.
Miscellaneous Oldham, 2006-2008:
Wonder Showzen, "Horse Apples"
Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22,
Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing (Alternate Version)"
The aforementioned A.V.Club interview (a must-read, it's quite good) addresses the topic somewhat, but over the past three years Oldham has popped up in some pretty strange projects. (And what all these projects have in common is that... they're probably much more brililant when you're not sober.) He calls them "pretty Zen experiences" of "randomness."
"Horse Apples" is a special episode of the demented "children's" program Wonder Showzen, where the shortlived MTV2 cult show took a break from making kids say crazy stuff and brought together a host of alt-comedians to lampoon Hee Haw and our creeping conservative values.
R. Kelly's epic Trapped in the Closet went on for chapters past its genius buzz, and Oldham appeared as a cop.
The video above is the most brilliant of this group: with comedian Zach Galifianakis lip-synching, Oldham essentially plays the Puffy hype-man to the bearded man's Biggie in a video that imagines hip-hop excess on a North Carolina farm. Worth watching for the blue-lit silhouette scenes and Galifianakis asking, "How you stay faithful in a room full of hoes?" to a field of cows.