Y’ain’t Seen!?… is a semi-regular column about movies you potentially have not seen
words :: Feet Banks
Let’s just say, when I’m 18, hopefully I’ll be reachin’ a little bit of my peak.”— BJ Bowden (age16)
It’s pretty rare a movie changes the way I live. Certainly, many have changed how I think, talk, act, or how I want to make my own flicks…but there haven’t been that many that actually affected what I do with my free time and my friends.
Amarillo By Morning did though, almost immediately.
Directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Her, The Beastie Boys Sabotage video), Amarillo is a 29-minute documentary about a group of suburban Houston teens who dream of being professional bull riders. The only problem: it’s really clear if any of them have ever been on an actual bull.
But they have been on a bucking barrel bull—a handmade mechanical bull consisting of a 40-gallon metal drum (with jagged, rusted edges) and three lengths of elasticized rope tied to trees. And for a kid with dreams, that’s more than enough.
Jonze first met Bryan James “BJ” Bowden, “Little” John Wesley McJunkin, and their crew while filming a series of Wrangler blue jean commercials starring actual professional bull riders at the Houston rodeo. Deciding these kids had their own (better) story to tell, Jonze and Director of Photography Lance Accord (Lost in Translation, Adaptation) took a ride out to someone’s buddy’s farm one afternoon and returned with a coming-of-age story about confidence, loyalty, young love, dedication, and the value of, as show-stealer Little John puts it: “just havin’ fun, being kids…being free.”
In another director’s hands, this film could have been a one-note joke on “country folk” and their values, but Jonze cuts together an honest, unpretentious look at a group of teens holding on to the simple innocence of childhood as they teeter on on the cusp of adulthood, and adult problems.
“I drove up there, ’cause she said she had work for me,” explains Clint Barr, 18, an aspiring country musician who can’t play guitar and hasn’t really written any songs. “She said her dad was gonna give me a truck so I head up there, her folks start yelling, ‘you get the hell outta here’…I got a half tank of gas—can’t get home on it. I got no money…and yeah, take a minor across a state line…that’s illegal. So I don’t know if she’s my girlfriend or not. I’m not sure I can trust her.”
The younger barrel bull riders view love differently (“she’ll always be there,” BJ explains), and despite their total suburban roots and lack of real bull riding experience, they hold tightly to their dreams for the future.
“Hard core rodeo,” says Little John. “Living free, riding good, riding hard with my best friends.”
It’s easy to be sucked into the polite country charm of these kids, even as you watch them talking shit and ham it up for the camera. In just his second short film (and first non-skateboard documentary) Jonze and his barrel bull boys cast a wholly unpretentious and pretty potent spell. So potent, that when I moved to a farm just months after seeing this doc (filmed in 1996 but released widely on The Directors Label DVD set featuring the work of Jonze and fellow music video wunderkids Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham in 2003) my friends and I built our own bucking barrel bull. None of us ever made the transition to the real thing either, but for 1-8 seconds there, bouncing skyward above a depression full of sawdust…shit-yeah, we were free.
(And that Chris LeDoux version of the song remains cemented near to top of everyone’s country playlist. Maybe this is actually the greatest music video of Jonze’s career after all.)
Bonus: If you haven’t checked out Pie Quarterly’s Hollywood editor Lauren Graham’s tale about that time she sorta-kinda stalked Spike Jones…read Dear Spike Jonze now.
In the pre-Pie era, Feet Banks procured a minor in Film Studies at university and parlayed that into a weekly film column called “Notes from the Back Row” for Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine that ran for 18 years. (That’s 924 Tuesday-night deadlines in a row.) For whatever reason he’s decided to try again with Y’ain’t Seen!?…
The title for this column comes—with reverence and respect—from a comment made by culture commentator/media personality Van Lathan Jr. on the exceptional The Ringer movie podcast The Rewatchables. You should definitely be checking that out and don’t be surprised when something over there influences something over here. That’s just how shit works.
Y’ain’t Seen!?… will also feature occasional reviews from the incredible amoeba, an artist/filmmaker/mastermind whose tastes run slightly more obscure than most audiences which means his voice and perspective is wholeheartedly welcomed here in Pie Quarterly universe. the incredible ameoba is also the founder and key member of a surf-punk band called The Giant Leeches. They suck.