They took reality and made it into an astoundingly lousy movie. This often happens when people are not content with what they see right before their eyes. It is the product of bored souls continually disappointed with the fact that life itself is not cool enough. Thankfully, for them, but unfortunately for the rest of us cinema provides the tools to pimp reality. In the case of White Lightnin’ the filmmakers have taken an already eccentric character and turned him into a hillbilly messiah.
Jesco White was first introduced to the larger world in Jacob Young’s 1991 documentary Dancing Outlaw. For years, tapes of this broadcast circulated through various tape trading circles. At one point, a copy of Dancing Outlaw fell into the hands of Tom Arnold. At the time Arnold was married to Rosanne Barr and a producer on his show. The two of them invited Jesco out to Los Angeles to appear on the hit-sitcom Rosanne. Jesco only appears over the end credits of the show, but his adventure to the west coast spawned a sequel to Dancin’ Outlaw. Soon after the sequel, Jesco returned to Boone County, West Virginia and the Last of the Dancing Outlaws waited for his next moment in the spotlight.
While neither of the documentaries about Jesco are amazing fetes of documentary filmmaking they do not try to over-power their subject with a style of their own. The same cannot be said about White Lightnin’. This abomination of a bio-pic is more about the filmmakers’ voices than the story of Jesco White. Yes, they show his rough up-bringing, his addiction to huffing, his obessisson over his dead daddy, and his undying love of his darlin’ Norma ‘Cilla’ Jean, but they do it with all the edgy, visceral aesthetic of a hard rock video. Sadly, they have about as much grace and restraint as a rock video.
Young’s documentaries are humble depictions of a rather mundane existence, occassionaly peppered with rowdy outbursts, fueled by boredom and excessive intoxication, White Lightnin’ is a visceral nightmare set to the tune of Hasil Adkins “No More Hot Dogs”. That’s a song I used to love, but it shall now forever remind me of this film. Even worse is the patently false, bastard-kin-to-Terrence Malick narration they wrote for Jesco White.
I might be able to over look the dramatized nature of this film and the extreme liberties they have taken with Jesco’s story, if it were not for the lack of imagination brought to this story. What is supposed to be the Jesco White story becomes a cliched, dark fantasy of Appalachia by individuals who have little to know understanding or compassion for the characters and culture they have co-opted. Frankly put, White Lightnin‘ is a haunted house version of Applachia based more from movies like Deliverance than from observational understanding of the regions culture. However, do those things really matter, especially for the audience I am sure this film is trying to attract? Probably not. Why just look at all those fake scratches on the poster! Aren’t they cool? Don’t they scream nasty, gritty film ahead? I mean, should I expect anything else from this film? In a culture that wants everything to have the same verisimilitude of a theme park, why should I not be surprised that this energy-drink version of his life-story be necessary?