Though the chintzy stage shows and eccentric performers it documents often seem ripped straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, Brent Meeske’s wonderful chronicle of Branson, Mo., performers is something else entirely — a very funny, very sincere testament to the immense dedication, faith and personal sacrifice that goes into creating forms of art most cultural arbiters would dismiss with a smirk. In many ways a kindred spirit to Sacha Gervasi’s recent “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “Branson” is a pitch-perfect, tremendously affecting documentary that could go far with the right handling.
To most Americans under the age of 60, the tiny tourist town of Branson seems to exist in a strange parallel universe: a sort of miniature Broadway deep in the Ozarks, where all the performances are hokey and family-friendly, the crowd is geriatric and Yakov Smirnoff is still considered a major headliner. Often thought of as a retirement home for past-their-prime performers, the town nonetheless has its fair share of residents looking to forgeo an entire career there, many of whom are content to live the showbiz life outside what they see as the corrupting influences of New York and Los Angeles.
Focusing entirely on the latter group, the film follows the performers of three shows over the course of three years. “Blast!” is a kitschy shoestring operation featuring two husband-and-wife couples, including a pair of evangelical Christians who have just made the move from New Jersey. The equally kitschy “No. 1 Hits of the ’60s” is far more polished and successful, though it has yet to turn a profit and exists in constant danger of being pulled by a dour investor whose periodic visits to the theater are disasters waiting to happen. Boasting a flamboyant director and a bubbly, pretty lead actress who doubles as a waitress at a nearby diner, this show provides the pic’s most hilarious backstage drama.
Yet the star of the film is unquestionably Jackson Cash, a lovable ex-con and recovering addict who, in both voice and mannerisms, is an absolute dead ringer for Johnny Cash. Introduced playing in the Wal-Mart food court for tips and hustling his CDs at gas stations, Cash is reduced to living in his car until a stroke of luck lands him a gig. Within weeks he’s moved up to headliner, and becomes one of Branson’s hottest performers, even appearing on televangelist Jim Bakker’s show alongside his doppelganger’s sister Joanne Cash, who is all but reduced to tears by his rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Cash is an almost perfect docu subject: Talented, avuncular and full of wild anecdotes, he’s also a man who manages to be at his most revealing when he’s trying to put a happy face on his situation. His first taste of success quickly turns sour with a drug-and-alcohol relapse that mirrors his idol’s life all too closely. Scenes of the massively hungover Cash in a motel bed, coming to terms with the mess he’s made of things, are heartbreaking.
It’s obvious that director Meeske put in significant time getting to know his subjects, who seem completely at ease, and he returns the favor by always treating them with respect, no matter how ridiculous their situations (or costumes) may be. The film looks and sounds great, considering how much of it had to be captured on the fly.