Dancing Outlaw

Dir: Jacob Young, 1991. Documentary.
Dancing Outlaw

Dancing Outlaw is the first of two films by director Jacob Young that follow the comical and sometimes endearing daily rituals of Jesco White—a young man with a few different personalities who has followed his father’s footsteps in attempting to become the greatest living mountain dancer in the Appalachians. He lives in Boone County, West Virginia—a place where everyone seems to have either gone mad or suffers from some kind of gentile and permanent cabin fever.

His wife Norma Jean describes him in by far the most amusing and unflinching way, claiming that he is the most beautiful person that she’s ever met, but also the Devil himself. Through fluid interviews, she sort of forewarns the audience of Jesco’s three personalities: there’s Jesse, the son of his father who has a healthy beard and enjoys digging into his hillbilly roots and growing into a stronger tap dancer; Jesco, the man who wears grungy metal clothing, talks simple, and tells stories of sniffing glue and gasoline, among other things; and finally, there’s Elvis—Jesco’s personality at home, where his entire house is literally filled with an overwhelming amount of Elvis memorabilia. Aside from his home being stuffed with everything with “The King’s” face on it, he also slicks back his hair, wears fancy clothes, shaves his beard, sculpts his brows, and records himself singing along to Elvis records in his bedroom.

If that wasn’t enough to keep you puzzled, or engulfed in your own laughter, the film then introduces us to Jesco’s family life. He and his wife were married for thirteen years, divorced for ten months, and at the time of the shoot had been remarried together for two months. The two can be seen arguing about everything from Jesco’s death threats to his wife to when they’ll be able to be intimate again. The two made the wise choice not to have children. As for the rest of the family, Jesco lives fairly cut off from them, stating that they are a bad influence and that he blames them, and especially his brother, for the murder of his father, which he witnessed and is retold by him and other family members in a very unique overlapping series of interviews.

The greatest pastime for his brothers and sister are trailer park parties, where people get loaded and do Dukes of Hazard-style 360s in the mud and hoot ‘n’ holler at all the excitement. Their culture is one that holds Elvis and Marilyn Monroe as their idols, but with the essence of their hillbilly and trailer park roots hanging on for dear life. It allows for them to have a sense of vanity while in their squalor, which makes for some excellent, if not a bit guilty, entertainment for those who don’t have that lifestyle.

My favorite part of the documentary is the footage of Jesco and his father’s mountain dancing, a native Appalachian dance that intertwines tap and clog dancing. There is a select amount of footage of his father, D. Ray White, who was well respected in the art and just as impressive as the rumor tells, but the footage of Jesco is arguably more rewarding. He dances on everything from cardboard or doghouses (with bored dogs inside them) to a rickety bridge. The most subtle of his performances is his first show on a proper stage with an audience, which eventually turned him into a cult icon and got him to perform in Hollywood (shown in the sequel to this film), as well as spots on other TV documentaries.

As a whole, the film is a very nebulous piece of work that allows for intimate and funny exploration—not just for Jesco, but for the audience as well. And although the interviews and footage are amateur works, it blends together well and delivers a solid story. If anything, I wished that it was longer, but the DVD copy luckily has special features that include extended interviews and footage of their dancing. The soundtrack also set the mood quite nicely…so if you get a chance to see it, prepare yourself for a wild ride into the slums with the sounds of Blues, Folk, Hard Rock, and of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 5, 2010 12:36pm
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