Between 1979 and 1985, cult director Trent Harris made three different films about a character he dubbed “Groovin’ Gary,” aka “the Beaver Kid,” a small-town Utah dreamer with big Hollywood ambitions. That triptych — which comprises an eccentric TV profile and two short-film re-enactments starring Sean Penn and Crispin Glover — eventually found its way to the 2001 Sundance Film Festival as “The Beaver Trilogy,” and now holds a place as one of the oddest footnotes in American cinema, though it’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t already seen it having more than a passing interest in “The Beaver Trilogy Part IV.” While it finally answers so many questions fans have been asking for years, sometimes far more poignantly than devotees would have thought possible, Brad Besser’s obsessive feature-length follow-up documentary ultimately feels like a DVD featurette that spiraled ridiculously out of control.
Like Ben Steinbauer’s “Winnebago Man,” which tracked down the salesman whose foul-mouthed industrial-video outtakes went viral, or the more recent “Raiders!,” about the three kids who remade Indiana Jones’ first outing shot-for-shot, Barnes’ film lavishes a disproportionate amount of attention on an underground video star. (The docu actually runs longer than all three Beaver films combined, turning indulgently self-reflexive at one point as Besser integrates his personal history with Harris’ work into the narrative.)
Despite Bill Hader’s play-it-straight narration and a wealth of contextual interviews, clips alone can’t convey why neophytes should care. To fully appreciate the bizarre phenom, viewers must track down and watch the half-hour episode of “Extra” that kicked it all off: “The Beaver Kid,” in which Harris chanced upon “Groovin’ Gary,” whose real name (Besser learns) was Dick Griffiths, while testing equipment in the Channel 2 station parking lot.
Griffiths, who described himself as a “Beaver Rich Little,” spontaneously did impressions of John Wayne and Barry Manilow oncamera, and Harris, instinctively realizing that he’d stumbled upon something special, encouraged the guileless young man’s fantasies of being discovered. When Griffiths subsequently invited him out to Beaver, Utah, to film a local talent show, Harris showed up with his crew, only to capture Griffiths’ jaw-dropping, full-drag appearance as “Olivia Newton-Dawn” (and that’s not even the weirdest part, as he had his makeup done by the same woman who prepped the corpses at the local mortuary).
Though Harris appears to have made “The Beaver Kid 2” as a satire of Griffiths, with a pre-“Taps” Penn’s imitation bordering on cruel at times, the 20-minute re-creation also hints at misgivings the helmer may have had about the earlier project — namely, in the addition of a key scene in which Griffiths is so humiliated by the experience that he puts a shotgun in his mouth. The suicide attempt shows up again in “The Orkly Kid,” a full-blown melodramatic version Harris made as his thesis project for the American Film Institute, begging the question of what did happen to the real Griffiths after the cameras stopped rolling.
All of this backstory is amusingly rehashed in the first half-hour of Besser’s documentary, which opens in Harris’ cluttered HQ, a Salt Lake City office filled with everything from old props (including the water-skiing cat from “Rubin and Ed”) to a dead friend’s ashes. While Harris proves an interesting character — having given Hollywood a shot, only to retreat out to the desert, where he could make films on his own terms — Besser miscalculates our interest in how he’s spent the intervening years (especially in a tangent dedicated to the director’s 2011 sci-fi flop, “Luna Mesa”).
The reason to watch a “Beaver Trilogy” documentary is to learn more about Groovin’ Gary: Who was this eccentric, yet undeniably compelling character? Did he really try to kill himself? Playing the investigative journalist, Besser manages to track down Griffiths’ true identity (via a high school yearbook, in which he was voted “Mr. Personality” by his peers), though the helmer is not just coy but downright misleading in the way he unspools the details.
For reasons the film eventually makes clear, Besser never actually manages to speak with Griffiths, and it’s unclear whether he even tried to corner Penn or Glover about their potentially embarrassing early-career roles. (Given the pic’s self-reflexive approach, it might have been entertaining to see the actors shoot down interview requests.) That leaves him with Harris as a primary subject.
Thirty years after the fact, the helmer has moved on with his life and prefers not to talk about “The Beaver Trilogy.” That said, Harris clearly still feels guilt over the trilogy, and to observe how his career turned out is to realize that fate is seldom as poetic as the movies make it out to be. Just before the credits roll on “The Orkly Kid,” Glover (as Griffiths) hops in his car and heads for Hollywood, wearing his Olivia wig and singing “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting.” Harris had three chances to perfect that ending, and now, for better or worse, Besser has finally uncovered what actually happened to Groovin’ Gary.