Filmmaker Chris Deaux rides tall with “The Last Western,” an affectionately melancholy portrait of eccentrics, misfits and other fringe dwellers in a California desert town originally constructed as a backlot for low-budget horse operas of the ’40s and ’50s. After moseying through the fest circuit, this exceptionally well-lensed docu should attract a passel of viewers as cable and pubcast fare.
Deaux focuses on the colorful characters of Pioneertown,established in 1946 to serve producers of B-grade Western features and TV series. (Gene Autry shot his final pic — “The Last of the Pony Riders” — there.) One resident notes that, after the decline of cheapie oaters, the town “basically died in 1955,” remaining viable only as a home base for motorcycle gangs in the 1960s.
More recently, however, Pioneertown has evolved into a quiet haven for hearty folks who, much like the townspeople in B-Westerns, seek either escape from civilization or redemption for past mistakes.
Despite the town’s frayed Hollywood ties, many residents are interested in music, not movies. “Dazzling” Dallas Morley, an eightysomething semi-retired pianist, yearns to once more perform bar ballads before a boisterous crowd. Chipper Mary Gaffney, a former make-up artist for Bob Hope, prefers to compose and perform’70s-style pop ditties in a weather-beaten home festooned with American flags.
“Last Western” devotes its largest share of running time to Buzz Gamble, a grizzled ex-con and self-described functional drunk who lives out of his car in Pioneertown. Whether he’s recalling his checkered past as a drug dealer and small-time bandit, or performing blues or country songs (including a duet with Johnette Napolianto of Concrete Blonde) with gravelly voiced authority, Gamble comes across as the gruffly charismatic equivalent of a Wild West outlaw. His ultimate fate comes as no surprise — indeed, it’s more or less announced in pic’s opening moments — but it provides an affecting note of poignancy as “Last Western” rides off into the sunset.