Shout! Factory // 2007 // 58 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // September 4th, 2007
"Everybody says I'm a walking movie. You know what? They're
-- Cowboy Jack Clement
What do you call a former Arthur Murray dance instructor who was present at the birth of Rock and Roll, has many times over redefined country music, once sank over a million dollars into a failed slasher flick, and has the love and respect of some of Nashville's greatest musicians?
Just call him "Cowboy."
Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies is a whirlwind tour through the life's work of legendary producer, songwriter, performer, and home movie nut "Cowboy" Jack Clement. Comprised primarily of interviews, musical performances, and candid footage from Clement's extensive home movie library, this taut 58-minute documentary is less a life story than a celebration of personality and creativity.
If you're like me, Cowboy Jack Clement belongs on the list of fascinating people you never knew existed, though I bet you're already familiar with some of his work. You know that horn line that opens Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire"? Cash may have dreamt up the horns, but it was Clement who came up with the melody they play. Ever heard Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On"? Cowboy Jack produced it, in one take -- probably the origin of his "it only takes three minutes to make a hit record" rule. He even worked with U2, producing three songs (in Sun studios) for the Rattle and Hum film and accompanying album.
A good documentary makes you care about the subject, whether you were already familiar with them or not. Even if you've never heard of Cowboy Jack, chances are you know one of the many artists he befriended, produced, and composed for -- making it easy to come to this movie as a Johnny Cash fan, a Waylon Jennings fan, a John Prine fan, a U2 fan, or simply a music fan. Whatever brings you to the party (even if you're not a country music fan), there's plenty to enjoy.
Throughout his career, Jack Clement tried to shake up the establishment. He pushed the boundaries, redefining the "country" music genre. Whether by helping turn the white-guy-singing-black-music paradigm of Elvis into the black-guy-singing-"redneck country" of Charley Pride, bringing in "outlaws" like Waylon Jennings, or writing song with lyrics like "some cowboys hate horses / and I'm one of those," Clement reacted against music that he saw as "too vanilla." In his words: "I don't care what they call country. I only care what I call country."
As the backbone of this documentary, Cowboy Jack's home movies are pretty amazing (at one point he figures he must have spent over a million dollars on them). There's a lot of goofing around -- the Cowboy dances and balances bottles on his head, and lifelong friend Johnny Cash cracks jokes while wearing a plastic pig nose. There's also previously unreleased footage from concerts and informal jam sessions. Much of the footage was shot in Clement's house/studio (nicknamed the "Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa"), a place as eclectic as its owner. Pretty much all of his friends and fellow musicians ended up on film, clowning around in the studio, sitting under the real tree he had installed in his living room (complete with 36,000 hand-tied silk leaves), or acting in one of his bizarre fake commercials.
Clement's sense of humor and offbeat style bleed into the film. Animation is sprinkled throughout, including several scenes featuring the (live-action) Cowboy talking with a "squiggle vision"-style Shakespeare (the documentary title comes from a chance meeting Clement once had with the Bard, in a dream).
The people who made Cowboy Jock's Home Movies want to make sure the audience loves the Cowboy as much as they do. Like its subject, this film has little room for unhappy thoughts. Only a discussion of the friends who've passed (including Cash and legendary producer Sam Phillips) adds a bittersweet tinge to the carnival atmosphere surrounding Cowboy Jack. This meditation on the mortality of a 76-year-old man and the Nashville greats who shared his life serves as a reminder: they don't make 'em like this anymore.
Par for the course, Shout! Factory has released a very attractive package, from the case art to the extras. There are another nearly 24 minutes of deleted scenes, as well as a full-length commentary recorded by Cowboy Jack and friend Alamo Jones. The two men talk through the feature like they were talking over somebody's home movies (of course, they are). They reminisce and tell a few stories that aren't in the film. Considering that the feature clocks in at less than an hour, the extras go a long way towards making this disc feel substantial.
A warning: the packaging might lead U2 fans to think the band is featured prominently in the film. They're not. There's some (brief) footage of a circa-1989 Bono doing an impression of Brando as The Godfather, and Cowboy Jack recounts the story of his meeting the band in a deleted scene, but that's it.
As is to be expected when video and audio come from various source materials, picture and sound quality is uneven. What do you want? They're home movies. It's worth noting that, while attempting to track down audio information for this review's tech specs (information that was not readily available), I contacted the filmmakers at Tremolo Productions, who told me that the film is in stereo, where available, but not in Dolby. Not exactly ideal for a music documentary, but they did the best they could with what they had.
Though your mileage may vary, depending on how much you like (or don't like) country music, the story of this funny, brilliant, and influential man is fascinating enough to recommend to anyone who loves music. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2007 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English, (Stereo when available))
Running Time: 58 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Feature Commentary with Cowboy Jack Clement and Alamo Jones
* Bonus Interviews and Home Movies