At the risk of bouncing a smug note into the surrounding areas of western Montana, Missoula is one hell of a town. There are a million reasons why this is so, but the one exemplified by this weekend's shot of Gourds mania is worth particular mention.
Simply put, Missoula attracts creative talents of astonishing quantity and quality. And when you put that many dynamic minds in a place hemmed by mountains and fed by rivers, good stuff is bound to happen. Good stuff, like a late-night backyard barbecue, sparked what would become All The Labor, the new documentary from Doug Hawes-Davis and High Plains Films about one of the greatest American bands to never quite hit it big (yet).
The Missoula vortex snared Hawes-Davis back in 1990; in the 20-plus years since he moved here, he's been largely responsible for two Missoula institutions: the documentary production company High Plains Films, and the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
The Gourds, an alt-county/roots/Americana band from Austin, Texas, first performed in Missoula in 1998, and the resulting mutual love affair between the band and the town has translated to dozens of concerts since. It was after one of those shows in 2011 that the band ended up in Hawes-Davis' backyard eating barbecue, drinking beer and planting a seed in the filmmaker's brain. "The next day it just dawned on me that this could be a great music documentary," Hawes-Davis says.
Once the band got on board, Hawes-Davis was faced with a new challenge. Despite a heavy use of music in High Plains' films, he had never before made a film about a band. "I've always loved music documentaries, but even the best ones can sometimes sound like a bootleg," he says. "I wanted to make one that sounds great but still tells a story."
To that end, he enlisted his friend and colleague Brendan Canty (the multi-talented filmmaker and former Fugazi drummer). "I essentially got mentored by Brendan on how to make a rockumentary, in the first week of shooting with him," Hawes-Davis says. "He and Mark Creaney [The Gourds' sound tech] recorded all of the early shows, and I really leaned on them."
Canty's influence is found in the camera work, as well. "Brendan really convinced me to shoot almost everything hand-held," Hawes-Davis says. "And I'm really glad he didit matches the style of the band."
That style, like the band's music, is a hard one to define. Frontman Kevin Russell kicks out sweet mandolin ballads and guitar-driven rippers with equal aplomb, and dances like his joints were made of ball bearings. The songs of co-frontman and bass player Jimmy Smith sound as if they were constructed in the lab of a mad scientist—surreal, absurd and strangely compelling. Together, they're a classically oppositional rock-band nucleus, and All the Labor explores that dynamic to great effect. But all five band members figure prominently in the film as well. "We wanted to give each band member a scene—while they're all in the film all the way through, they'd each get a profile on how they connect and what they do," Hawes-Davis says.
That balance makes All The Labor something more than a tour film, though the live performances—both on stage and in rehearsals—are top-shelf by the highest standards of that genre. A healthy dose of archival performances and interviews provide a sense of where the band comes from, and when combined with new interviews and behind-the-scenes footage it tells the intriguing story of a band occupying the odd glow of semi-fame.
"What they're doing is actually really hard," Hawes-Davis says. "I'm not sure many people realize that, because what they're doing is also really fun, and they embrace that. But it's not easy in a lot of ways.
"I set out to make a film that celebrates the band," he continues. "I made a movie that will surely be a treat for existing fans. But if there's one thing I want people who haven't been exposed to The Gourds to come away with, it's that these guys are among the top-10 American bands of all time. Because I believe that they are."
All The Labor makes its Montana premiere at the Wilma Theatre Fri., April 26, at 8 PM, as part of the Big Sky Film Series. A Q&A with the filmmakers and Jimmy Smith of The Gourds will follow the screening. $10/$8 in advance at Ear Candy. Smith also plays a solo show Sat., April 27, at 9 PM, at the Crystal Theatre. $15.