By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
In 1991, PBS set off a minor sensation with their half-hour documentary short Dancing Outlaw. It’s popularity would spawn a sequel, if that’s what you want to call it, as well as a feature film and a Johnny Knoxville-produced follow-up documentary. It also would make its subject, Jesco White, the self-proclaimed most famous man in West Virginia, which maybe isn’t as hard as it sounds.
Google Image Search for “Famous People West Virginia” gets you Brad Paisley, Don Knotts, and this kid
It’s popularity was due to the undeniable magnetism of White as he discussed his violent and tragic upbringing and family history in between furious tapping sessions. But it also probably had something to do with the edge of danger and creeping insanity in the man, who tells us himself that a chunk of his brain is “sawdust” due to years of huffing whatever he could, and whose ugly side comes out more than once as he threatens his wife and others.
So, of course, Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood gets made, because the 90s. The serious nature of the first documentary is thrown out the window in favor of staged scenes and broad comedy, as wacky ‘ol Jesco gets an (actual) invite to cameo on Roseanne….
There’s a reason why this much material has sprung up out of a humble 30 minute made for TV documentary (check back later today for the feature film adaptation and the Johnny Knoxville-produced follow-up documentary). Jesco and the whole White clan make for some extremely interesting material. Rural West Virginia has one of the most insular, peculiar cultures in the country, and even in a world where moonshiners and multi-generational feuds persist, the Whites brand of troublemaking stands out.
Dancing Outlaw only touches on that a bit, but singles out Jesco as the most eccentric highlight of the bunch. Besides the huffing, the dancing, and the violent stories, he also has an epic Elvis fixation, and his relationship with his wife, who’s easily old enough to be his mother, provokes an odd fascination.
Also, his voice is Werner Herzog-level unique
The documentary is bare-bones, letting its subjects talk for themselves and cutting in the occasional party scene, but that’s all that’s needed. Fancy edits and extraneous material would just dilute the good stuff and filter out the true emotion that bubbles to the surface throughout. Any moonshiner could tell you that keeping things straight and strong is the way to go.
The simple style of the documentary may have more to do with resources than craftsmanship. A couple of dumb flourishes, like opening the film with banjos and a shoe thrown at a road sign, indicate that if the filmmakers had had enough cash, they probably would have funneled it into cheesy bullshit.
I can say that with confidence, because Dancing Outlaw II is nothing but. I did mention the sequel in the Toast section for a reason. It starts off with an awkwardly staged sitcom credits-style send0ff of Jesco by his wife, which goes over great if you just finished the first one, with White’s threats to beat her ass ringing in your ears (I guess he didn’t… or did so really effectively?) then a motherfucking chicken sings a country song. Things go downhill from there.
Singing chickens fill me with rage. If I were SG2, I could blame the repressed memories.
It probably isn’t news to you that Tom Arnold and Roseanne Barr are terrible human beings. That they would watch Dancing Outlaw and come away thinking, “Looks like fodder for some broad idiot comedy!” isn’t entirely objectionable, I guess. But that they’d be flabbergasted that a drug-addled white trash ex-con has a crude swastika tattoo on his hand, then passively-aggressively attack him about it even after it’s clear he doesn’t understand what’s going on probably is (It’s some German symbol, I think.”) It’s not the documentary’s fault that it and White got caught in the crossfire of Arnold and Barr’s increasingly poisonous relationship, but a beer sure makes it more palatable to watch.
A warning: It might also make you want to try to punch that smug look off of Arnold’s face right through your TV screen
Reviewing these two as a whole is a bit unconventional, although any copy of Dancing Outlaw you’re likely to track down will likely have the sequel and an additional 30 minutes of unused interviews. You might as well watch them all, just to see how to do a short form documentary properly and how to set fire to the entire concept.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for Grade A hillbillyin’
Take a Drink: every time there’s dancin’
Take a Drink: every time you see or hear Elvis
Take a Drink: every time D-Ray White is mentioned
Take a Drink: every time domestic violence is threatened
Bonus Bonus Dancing Outlaw II Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for nauseating 90’s kitsch (just keep on drinkin’)
Take a Drink: every time you see Tim Allen or Roseanne Barr attempt to make human faces