Watching Iggy Pop fishing in some Mississippi backwater as he regales a child with an old Negro folk tale is one of the many experiences in Dan Rose's cinematic blues riff Wayne County Ramblin' that perfectly expresses the surreal, awkward, yet potently meaningful mythologies that connect Detroit with our musical cousins of the South. Voodoo idols and Jim Beam bottles compete for screen time with street thugs, rotting factories and peanut shells. Searing, raw blues guitar weaves around eerie incantations, meshing with sweaty, pagan moaning and juke joint ecstasy. It's a journey that connects the North and the South not only musically, but spiritually, and that it took 15 years to complete speaks deeply to Rose's journey's as well.
Dan Rose populates his film with the music and stories that have inspired him since starting his career in film production back in the early '80s. Rose, 44, graduate of the photography and film program at the University of Michigan, made ends meet making industrial films for the UA.; getting his feet wet, paying the bills, soaking up the city like bread cutting a swath through a plate of gumbo. He saw a band called the Gories, befriended helmsman Mick Collins and set out for New York to take a job in advertising. He read a book called Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola, (who also wrote My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the inspiration for the Brian Eno-David Byrne collaboration) and became possessed by the beauty and poetry of the West African folk traditions, and struck by how ingrained yet ignored they were in his own back yard.
"I wanted to make a bush-wandering story but with young people from Detroit. A West African story but in a Midwestern setting," he says with an enthusiasm that belies the 15-year-long odyssey from the film's inception to its completion.
"The folklore is an important aspect of this country, all these tales that are directly linked to the slave trade," Rose continues. "Just look at Uncle Remus and Song of the South: Those are the collected tales of Africans, spread here and throughout the Caribbean, and it was fucking Disney that brought it to you. They are part of all of us, and I wanted to explore that storytelling tradition. I grew up in a Judeo-Christian society, a white kid from the suburbs, and I think it's all a crock of shit, frankly. The West African influence on our culture is so huge and just as significant as the Judeo-Christian one."
Rose started making self-financed music videos in New York, hooking up with his friends in the Gories to produce their 1990, MTV-aired "Nitroglycerine." (Collins is an almost constant presence in the film as African spirit Ogun, trailing behind or directly interacting with the three protagonists as they make their way down to the Mississippi high country.) After completing the screenplay for Ramblin', Rose used the Gories video as a calling card in an attempt to get financing for the project. It didn't work, and Rose went to work full time for an advertising agency. With the increase in salary he was able to devote half his income to the film, scraping by a living on the other half.
"I was getting sick about just dreaming about the project. I quit dreaming about it and just did it."
He knew he wanted Mick Collins for the African spirit. He knew he wanted Iggy Pop for Grandfather Simon (yes, he plays the grandfather the most chiseled and sinewy grandfather you'll ever see) and blues artist Lorette Velvette as another African spirit.
The film's three protagonists were plucked from the streets of New York City after Rose's experience with the more formal casting process only produced people who were "trying too hard." He wanted something much more organic and natural, and he approached pedestrians and bluntly asked them if they wanted to get involved.
"They thought I was nuts, but I got my three leads," he says. "I lived 10 blocks from where Iggy was living in New York City, and after repeated attempts by me to get his manager to give him a script, I just brought the damn thing over to his apartment building and dropped it off to him. It was great. He called me back a few days later and couldn't have been more enthused about doing it."
Production began in 1995 on 16mm, but soon transferred to digital format. The first scenes filmed featured Iggy and a little girl at the famous Horseshoe Lounge in Paradise Valley, now long gone and replaced with Ford Field. Filming finished in 2000. All told, it took Rose five years to get six weeks of shooting done. Hey, the man had to work for a living.
Wayne County Ramblin' is the story of Penny, a gorgeous beauty of Polish extraction and accent, on a search for her grandfather, whom she hasn't seen since childhood, when she was put in his care during her parents' divorce. All she knows is that he lives in Mississippi. She brings her loutish, heavy-drinking boyfriend Jim along for the ride, but before they even get out of Detroit, their motorcycle is stolen by a gang played by the late Cub Coda (Brownsville Station) and Sandy Kramer, famed Hamtramck hairdresser. (Kramer gleefully hams it up, kicking more than one character in the film with a pointy boot to the groin.) A good Samaritan a young man with girlfriend problems who wants to get drunk on William Faulkner's grave offers the couple a lift. That's the basic premise.
The film is a meandering exploration of soul and spirit, a meditation on memory and ghosts and the influences of unknown forces. Its pace is more closely associated with a music video than with a more traditional narrative there's a lazy, psychedelic feel that works. It moves like a long, withering blues strum, and you'll be drawn in by its richly human touch.
It's also populated with an assortment of musicians from Detroit, Memphis and all points rhythm and blues. Southern transplants Eddie Kirkland and Doctor Ross, rockabilly queen Cordell Jackson and Nathaniel Mayer are included in this amazing stew. Collins and Velvette team up with Peggy O'Neill Gories alumna and Rose's wife for one of the film's more memorable jam sessions, and one of the few times words come out of Collins' mouth in his otherwise mostly silent portrayal.
Fun aside, after a decade-and-a-half of work, the film was nearly a wash, literally. Rose's New Orleans home was inches away from Hurricane Katrina obliteration, which would have destroyed the film. Rose now lives with O'Neill on Detroit's southwest side.
So after 15 long years and thousands in credit card debts, will Rose ever consider making another film?
"You know, I'm not a professional filmmaker. This was a one-time shot. We're gonna release this ourselves and see how it goes. No film festivals or anything. One thing I know, though. I will never do this again, put myself out on a limb like that, doing it all myself. Never."
The crossroads can change a man.
Wayne County Ramblin' makes its Detroit premiere on Saturday, June 24 at the Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman, Detroit; 313-737-6606. The film shows at 7 p.m., and will be followed by performances from Mississippi's The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Mick Collins, and more. $15.Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]