Jesco White is the son of legendary mountain dancer D. Ray White, who was profiled in the 1987 documentary Talking Feet: Solo Southern Dance: Buck, Flatfoot, and Tap, and was considered one of the greatest mountain dancers in the United States. Mountain Dancing is a mash up between tap dancing, clog, and a good old fashioned jig, usually featuring pieces of horse shoe glued on to amplify the tapping sound. After the murder of D. Ray White in 1985, Jesco vowed to carry on in his father’s tradition.
The Dancing Outlaw is a 1991 documentary about the life of Jesco White, the mountain dancing, chemical huffing, no fuck giving, outlaw son of a gun. One’s first reaction to this scene is that of disbelief, surely this is a film ghost directed by the great Jon Waters. All awe aside, enough depth is displayed by the end of it’s barely forty minute running time to make you a believer. Jesco is an odd bird in a family and region full of them. What works here is that it’s just a glimpse into the man and the culture, things are kept short and sweet and while you may not be left wanting more, you are satisfied by the entertainment value at hand.
Of course Hollywood came a knocking after the underground success of The Dancing Outlaw. In 2009 Jesco’s life story was put to film in White Lightnin’, starring Edward Hogg as Jesco White and Carrie Fisher as Jesco’s much older lover ‘Cilla.
The first third of White Lightnin’ is a bit sketchy. The actor who plays young Jesco is pretty darn solid especially considering the fact that he’s filthy in just about every scene he’s in. The direction and camera work is unimaginative and uninspiring and gives the impression that the director is either unfamiliar with his subject or uncomfortable portraying it. Scenes don’t play out in a very cinematic way, even though the art director, cinematographer, and costumer department are all doing their best. It’s a half hour into the movie before the mountain dancing culture is treated with any sort of authenticity.
The quality does pick up shortly before Jesco meets his true love ‘Cilla, played Carrie Fisher, as in the Princess Leigh Carrie Fisher. ‘Cilla is much older than Jesco, an unflattering amount older. Carrie gives us a veteran performance, a performance that easily could have rested upon over the top cliches but doesn’t. At this point the movie kind of grows on you despite it’s flaws. The story is becoming more concise and Edward Hogg as the adult Jethro is every bit as charming as the real deal. I don’t have much to go on with Edward Hogg. He has a tidy IMDB resume, and I imagine I will be checking out Bunny and the Bull and I do remember the previews and hype around Anonymous, so that may be worth watching. Overall I get the feeling that he will be involved in some major projects sooner rather than later.
The last ten minutes is where the film goes unforgivably haywire. The story had built up enough charm to look past the fact that it pretty much ignores Jesco’s siblings and presents the murder of his father as factually incorrect, but those last ten minutes were are just unnecessarily pretentious. The quality work of cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, art director Ivica Trpic, costume designer Blanka Budak, as well as the stand out performances by Owen Campbell as young Jesco, Edward Hogg as adult Jesco, and Carrie Fisher as ‘Cilla are all flushed down the toilet with a worthless ending. Imagine what this story could have been with the right up and coming director and or Harmony Korrine. Boogie Nights and some selections from the French New Wave directors come to mind. I’d even go so far as to say that this could have been a fun movie to feature David Arquette as the lead, he’s certainly got a little bit of Jesco in him.
In short, the movie’s director, Dominic Murphy, is a fucking moron.
The latest adaption of Jesco’s White story is the 2009 full length documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. It’s produced by Dickhouse, the creators of Jackass, and features music and interviews from Hank Williams the III.
At this point in is life, Jesco White is a bigger celebrity outlaw than he’d like to be. Oh, he’s fine with the outlaw bit, but the clebrity part has become an invasion of his comfort, and it is implied that his siblings are a bit jealous of the attention. The story presented is much deeper than previous versions, not only does the film crew follow the Whites around for a year of their life, but it covers Jesco’s younger, more criminal years, the current lives of the living siblings, the career and death of Jesco’s father D. Ray White, and so much more. As much grime and dirtbaggery that is portrayed here, the film’s tone never comes off as exploiting the life situation and culture of it’s subjects. If anything, once you see a couple of interviews of what others have to say about the Whites, it may be the Whites that are exploiting the film makers. This show is very candid about a lifestyle that most people would not be able to tolerate. At the same time, once you’re immersed in the story, it’s hard to imagine it’s participants behave in any other way.
The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is the perfect companion piece to The Dancing Outlaw. An older, toned down, grey bearded Jesco White continues to dance while taking a moment to consider the fatalism around him.
and for the road, here is some D. Ray White