A gritty—yet light, drug-fueled comedy, that arouses a strong sense freedom.
East Nashville Tonight
Originally attempting to film a documentary to promote touring country music songwriters, co-directors Brad and Todd Barnes (Peace Queer: The Movie, The Locksmith) ended up with their “hypothetical documentary”(as they describe it), East Nashville Tonight. The film is a gritty—yet light, drug-fueled comedy, that arouses a strong sense freedom while finding a groove between it’s original intent and This Is Spinal Tap. Although the film almost has a “home-movie” quality to it, with parts seemingly carelessly put together, it was this spirit that drew me into the experience. It’s a spirit even mirrored in how the brothers decided to release the film; through their website with marketing from BOND360 and distribution from VHX.
Songwriter Todd Snider, who has worked as a composer for the Barnes previously, stars as himself (while retaining his role as composer) in his second film for the duo. Todd is a man of little inhibition: In the opening scene he’s hanging out with drummer Paul Griffith and drinking sangria while doing some faux Karate and rolling down a hill. Co-star Elizabeth Cook (who is also a touring musician) approaches, and after a couple hugs (and impromptu performance of Snider’s “Beer Run”) reveals that she just tanked a television audition. Faltering under the stress of commitments, including the pressure to make a television show, she’s now gone into hiding. It doesn’t take long for Todd to find an answer for Elizabeth’s problem, but first he offers up hits of acid to his friends.
After Elizabeth performs a beautiful rendition of Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” Todd reveals his plan to produce a show for her. It’s going to be a late-night style talk show with music, guests, a comedian and it will be filmed in and focus on East Nashville. Elizabeth still seems uncertain, but Todd assures her that it will be great, and he will take care of everything. Moments like this, where the performers get to express their friendship, is where the film really shines. The filmmakers really take advantage of these relationships, allowing them to play out these situations with genuine emotion.
Although the film has a clear narrative, it never really gets bogged down with an urgency to tell its story. Most of the individual scenes are friends hanging out, playing music, and getting high. However, these “hanging out” scenes are broken up with fun sketches that embrace dry humor, like when Todd’s doctor is giving him explicit limits on how much of each type of drug he can take. Todd placing an order with his dealer, asking for triple his normal amount of blow and a “fuck-load of Mushrooms” is another scene that stands out. As he’s waiting for his order (a ticking clock and montage indicates that it’s taking a long time) another patron recognizes him as a musician. He tells Todd that his performance was good, but didn’t like how he “told stories” and should make his show more like Beyonce’s in the Super Bowl. Occasionally these segments feel superfluous (like when Elizabeth pitches a perfume idea), but they don’t hinder the overall experience.
Cinematically the film does some interesting things. Often, to highlight the drug-use and the high that comes with it, the film will fade to a “sketch-filter” or super-impose images. The Barnes brothers and Snider have a great understanding of how to break the “fourth wall” creating an extra layer of authenticity in it’s doc-elements or empathize the comedy in it’s fictional elements. The film experiments with out of character moments; going as far as reincorporating outtakes, which admittedly, ended up taking me out of the film.
Acting-wise, there’s not really much to see as Todd’s is the standout performance (and he only tops out at “pretty good”), but the sense of fun and freedom the filmmakers infuse in their “hypothetical documentary” was more than enough to captivate me. East Nashville Tonight will make you wish you were part of the Nashville music scene. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll go dust of my acoustic guitar.