Gorilla filmmaker

Mule Skinner Blues takes wry look at wannabe artists

You may not guess that the Buckaneer Trailer Park near Jacksonville, Fla., was a hotbed of creative talent. And you might find those expectations are only confirmed by Mule Skinner Blues, a documentary about the artistic aspirations of some of the residents and their neighbors.

In the vein of American Movie's portrayal of a would-be auteur, Mule Skinner follows an unlikely amateur filmmaker, three honky-tonk musicians and other friends as they try to make a short, no-budget horror movie. If Mule Skinner occasionally condescends to its subjects' lack of polish, it still acknowledges the healing power of art — even low, cheesy art.

"Beanie" Andrew is a man with a dream. True, that dream consists of him rising out of mud in the guise of an angry gorilla, but at least he's got one. A 60ish recovering alcoholic, Beanie gets bitten by the showbiz bug when he's cast as an extra for a locally filmed music video. Beanie acquires his own video camera and decides to immortalize his gorilla obsession in an actual movie.

We're skeptical of Beanie's assessment of his own directorial eye, but we can't deny his gift of gab. "I got a story a mile long I'd like to tell the whole world," he announces during one of his non-stop monologues, and several montages capture him as everybody's friend, launching into his trademark dance steps at the drop of a hat. Beanie enlists the aid of his pal Larry Parrot, who cleans offices by day and writes grisly horror stories in his spare time. The two come up with the script, Turnabout is Fair Play, which involves a musician returning from the grave — in gorilla form — to exact revenge on a rival.

As Beanie and Larry scout locations in the local junkyard, we meet the other locals who pitch in. There's guitar god wannabe Ricky Lix, grizzled songwriter Steve Walker (who describes himself as "a drunk musician with a future") and 70-year-old singer Miss Jeannie, who loves Schnapps and yodels Bill Monroe's "Muleskinner Blues" early in the film. Beanie's mobile-home neighbor Annabelle Lea Usher may have her feet most firmly on the ground; she's a former costume designer with theatrical experience in New York. She seems less sensible when she opens her freezer to reveal her beloved, deceased pit bull, which she plans to freeze-dry.

Mule Skinner can resemble Ed Wood with its cast of eager misfits improbably pursuing artistic success. John M. Davis' original score, peppered with bongos, xylophones and theremin sound effects, even evokes Danny Elfman's music for the Tim Burton film. Opening with a droll goof on The Blair Witch Project, Mule Skinner also has a snappy pace and lively touch through its frequent intercutting of stock footage, most notably from Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film shot in the Jacksonville area.

Occasionally director Stephen Earnhart will use video effects for short "portraits" of artists at work, like Ricky jamming against a sky with fast-moving clouds, or Larry reading an ax-murder scene while the screen fills with blood. The film uses a similar technique when Miss Jeannie recounts a near-death experience during an operation. But since she claims to have no memory of it, the simulated white tunnel and spooky sound effects seem pointless.

At first these scenes only show the gulf between the subjects' actual talent and how they perceive themselves. But as Mule Skinner reveals the suffering in their lives, we reassess them as individuals and the film's point of view. We learn that the local shrimping industry has fallen on hard times, devastating the economy; that oft-married Steve (who puts Busch beer on his cornflakes) served in Vietnam; and that Larry cares for his bedridden mother. At some point after Turnabout's filming, Beanie falls off the wagon and ends up drunk and homeless. Their music and movies give them catharsis and solidarity with other people, even if they have no commercial prospects.

The documentary's last section features Turnabout's long-delayed local premiere and catches up with the characters after a pause of three years. Despite their disappointments and personal problems, they take palpable pleasure at the film's "red carpet" screening at a local community theater.

Mule Skinner Blues occasionally mocks the people it films, as when Ricky seems to speak the echo effect in his line of dialogue: "You shall surely die! Die... die... die..." Though you'd never willingly watch Turnabout is Fair Play on your own, you can appreciate how Beanie's project gives him and his friends a chance to come together to laugh, play-act and escape. Mule Skinner Blues offers a wry but ultimately affectionate portrait of those whom Annabelle memorably calls "flustrated people."??