The key to a great music documentary is in the timing. D.A. Pennebaker caught Bob Dylan at his apotheosis as a folk singer and the height of his songwriting powers right before he turned decisively towards electric rock and roll for Dont Look Back (1967). Sam Jones started filming Wilco the day after they fired their original drummer and didn’t finish until they canned another band member, were dropped by their record label, and released their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful record to date in what became I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002). It’s easiest when it coincides with the band’s swan song—think The Last Waltz (1978) or Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)—and, conversely, far more difficult to capture the moment where the band first emerges in the national spotlight.
The last of these is what The Ballad of Shovels & Rope, produced and directed by Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, poignantly does.
The film opens on Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, circa 2010, playing a weekly bar gig at El Bohio, a Cuban joint that shares a space with the Charleston Pour House. It’s a familiar sight to long-time fans, as Hearst and Trent could frequently be found playing shows like this for years in order to make a living. Not long after, we see Hearst waiting tables at Jestine’s kitchen, a part-time job that persists through the recording of their breakthrough album, 2012’s O Be Joyful.
And throughout most of the documentary, this precarious position is where the two find themselves in. Over the course of 2011 and 2012, Trent and Hearst would make a serious bid at making Shovels & Rope succeed, spending hundreds of days on the road in an old touring van retrofitted with an air mattress for nights spent in Wal-Mart parking lots. Sometimes the van serves as a makeshift studio as well—the film captures with crackling intensity the moment where Amanda Shires is shuffled into the van between soundcheck and show to record fiddle parts for a few of the songs.
While the plot points of this story can seem a little predictable now—aborted recording session in L.A., lots of touring, home recording and trips to the Laundromat in between—the beauty here is all in the relationship between Trent and Hearst (and their dog Townes, who tours with them). Watching them casually interact with each other, whether they are writing songs together, working long hours in various studios, or deciding to sign a record deal, feels both intimate and revelatory. You get a sense of the full breadth of their relationship, with everything from slapstick humor and playful teasing mixed with subtle physical touches and smoldering emotional intensity.
Structurally, the filmmakers also wisely hang their narrative around the writing and recording of just a handful of songs, among them “Birmingham,” the lead single that would launch them into the national spotlight and later win “Song of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards in 2013. There’s a glorious amount of footage given to these creative moments, with everything from a half-written rendition of “Birmingham” by Hearst to a scene where the duo gathers around a living room microphone trying to nail harmony parts on “Hail Hail.” These are obviously great fan-pleasing moments, but it’s also just as likely to win over audiences unfamiliar with Shovels & Rope as well. In a casual, informal way, it’s an incredible glimpse of how a songwriting and recording partnership works, at least for them. Freeman and Clark also stick mostly with montages to capture the grueling grind of the road, using only choice bits like the Wal-Mart parking lot scene and casual backstage chatting with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires (Trent and Hearst play them a hilarious double/single entendre tune called “Hard Hard Feeling,” which remains unreleased), wisely keeping the focus on songwriting and other scenes shot at the couple’s rustic Johns Island home.
Right around the one-hour mark, there is a palpable sense that the filmmakers are speeding up the story—we move quickly from record deal to album release to Letterman appearance to the Americana Music Awards, with a montage that also sees the band upgrading to an RV and getting their own washer and dryer delivered to their house. The film only runs about ten more minutes, so it might feel a bit tacked on or like a rushed ending for some, but I can’t help but be happy with the balance of the film. It’s the moments of struggle and uncertainty that are the appeal here, and the adrenaline rush of success at the close that the film gives up probably mimics a bit what the duo (and, to a lesser extent, the filmmakers themselves) felt. “Being in a rock band is a lot like playing the lotto at the gas station,” Hearst opines during a late interview. It’s an apt comparison, and a fitting one that hits on the unlikeliness of the Shovels & Rope success story. And it’s all the more amazing for having been captured on film by these guys.
The film will be screened The Nickelodeon Theatre on Friday, November 21st, at 11pm, with an opening set by Mason Jar Menagerie. DVD copies of the doc will be available starting December 1, with preorders available now at The Moving Picture Boys website here.
Note: You can still attend the 2014 JAY Awards, which start at 7pm, and see the film as well!