In the early '90s, back when "going viral" meant you had to hook up two VCRs to dub 8th generation copies of cult classics, a curious piece of Americana brought a little heaven and hell in the tape-trading underground. The shot-on-video documentary short Dancing Outlaw allowed Jesco White, of Boone County, W.Va., to tell his "real people" story of juvenile delinquency, gas huffing and redemption. White's triumph over adversity came through channeling his energy into the Appalachian folk form of mountain dancing, an art he learned from his father. Even though White had his problems, to say the least, by combining his outlandish backwoods story with humor and charm, his tale won viewers over every time another copy was made.
"Inspired by the life of Jesco White," says an opening credit for White Lightnin'. But first-time director Dominic Murphy and first-time screenwriters Eddy Moretti and Shane Smith (both contributors to Vice Magazine) take White's story to a much darker place, with this Trainspotting for the Appalachian gas-huffing scene. This disturbing film, filled with mood swings and violent, explicit revenge fantasies, shows a Jesco White who walks the line between the mountain-dancing straight and narrow, and the evils of substance abuse and vengeance obsessions. As the substance-inhaling demons within him simmer, and White fantasizes about extracting revenge on his neighbors who murdered his father, the film's creators throw in a little Requiem for a Dream, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, maybe even Passion of the Christ — there's a twisted, distorted theology at work in this film that culminates in White's grotesque auto-crucifixion.
As Jesco White, Edward Hogg convincingly portrays the charm of White's good times as well as the horror of White's descent into madness. And as White's wife Cilla, Carrie Fisher shines in quite a comeback role. Director Murphy's compositions are brushed in distinctively dull colors that are often mere shades away from black and white, perhaps aping the color loss of dubbed-to-death copies of Dancing Outlaw. Murphy has a good ear for style too. Hogg's conversational narration captures the matter-of-fact delivery of the real Jesco White. And Murphy effectively uses the crazed music of another Boone County madman, Hasil Adkins, to amplify the tension and anxieties in White's life. In all, it's a promising debut that takes chances as it concentrates on the madness only hinted at in the original Dancing Outlaw.
Open Friday, Feb. 26, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238 or burtontheatre.com.
Greg Baise writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.