In 1991 Jacob Young directed a PBS special called Dancing Outlaw which took a look at the life of Jesco White, a West Virginian man whose late father, D. Ray White, was considered the king of the mountain dancers. Jesco and his family grew up dirt poor in Boone County, often dealt with substance abuse issues and all manner of domestic disputes, and generally lived pretty hard. Jesco, however, had a brief flash of fame when he rose to some notoriety for his odd tap dancing style and even wound up landing himself a spot on an episode of Rosanne. That documentary captured the attention of a lot of people and Jesco went on to become a folk hero of sorts, in spite of his personality disorder issues, his rampant depression, and his substance abuse (he's quite open about his penchant for huffing Freon). Enter Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and their Dickhouse Productions company, best known for bringing us Jackass. Fairly infatuated with the movie, Knoxville decided to bankroll a follow up of sorts and now we have The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia which takes a look not only at Jesco but at his whole family tree.
An introductory scene tells us a little bit about the White family and their illustrious reputation in Boone County and beyond. We learn how Patriarch D. Ray White did actually achieve moderate fame with his tap dancing but how that fame was cut short when he died, leaving widow Bertie May White to raise a whole bunch of kids on her own. These kids, including Jesco and his siblings, are hellraisers. Prone to drinking and drugging and ingesting any substances they can, they live off of social assistance and spend their days stoned and out of it. Alcohol and drug abuse are obviously very big problems, as highlighted in a scene where one of the White women gives birth and decides to celebrate with her sister by doing a few lines of cocaine in the hospital. It's sad, though not at all surprising, to see her reaction when the state comes and takes the baby from her, she's obviously very upset about it and the bright spot of the film follows her attempts to clean up by entering a rehab clinic.
Interviews with local law enforcement officials and political types attest to the family's notoriety on a local level, while interviews and a few musical numbers from Hank Williams III (the highlight of which features Jesco tap dancing on a picnic table while Hank sings out his song Punch Fight Fuck - it's just surreal to see it) stand as testament to the Whites' growing notoriety in American popular culture. As downtrodden and low down as most of the Whites seem to be, there's no denying the train wreck factor that makes this all watchable in a messed up reality TV sort of way. There's also something likeable about some of the family members too. Some of them are pretty hard to feel for but Jesco's got a way about him that, despite his many personal demons and problems, makes him an interesting and sometimes almost gentle fellow. Clips of him performing show him with such a genuine smile on his face that you can't help but root for the guy, even if you know that when he's done he's going to go home and get loaded and do some damage to himself or someone else.
The documentary, which is really little more than just a fly on the wall look at a year in the lives of the family, introduces us to the one White son who left West Virginia to get away from the mess he grew up in. The focus, however, is on the Whites who have remained in Boone County. We see them go about their daily lives, which generally seems to involve a lot of cussing, drug abuse, aimless wandering, random use of firearms, random fights, tattoos and other, assorted miscreant behaviors. One White went to jail for murdering his uncle in a dispute they got into over a girl - he's interviewed from prison about his home life and about his crime.
A little more context and a little more of a refined focus would have made this documentary more interesting than it is. In its current form, it's really more or less just a freakshow. We watch not necessarily because we want to but because we can't turn away. There is an interesting back story to the Whites and their reputation in the area that the film could and should have used more than it does here, but if nothing else, The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia is interesting if almost solely because of the insane lifestyle lead by its subjects. What could have been an interesting socio-historical documentary about a morbidly fascinating group of people. Instead, it's more like a harder edged reality TV show with some great musical bits - entertaining and at times pretty fascinating, but not necessarily for reasons you'll be proud of.
The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia looks about as good as you'd expect it to in this 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The documentary was shot on decent grade digital video so the image is clean and there are no issues with dirt or debris. Colors look pretty natural though there are some compression artifacts in the darker scenes that aren't all too difficult to spot. There's a little bit of shimmer to the picture but overall, it's perfectly watchable given the conditions under which it was all shot.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo track is fine, though the absence of subtitles might be an issue for those who have trouble with the thick accents that the Whites all have and they sure would have come in handy during a few scenes dealing with the family's substance abuse issues. Family members sometimes slur a bit after a few drinks. Generally though, things sound alright. The levels are well balanced and the music, most of which comes courtesy of Deke Dickerson and Hank Williams III, comes through sounding really good. A 2.0 Stereo track is included as well, also in English.
Extras start off with a commentary track from Julien Nitzberg and producer Johnny Knoxville. It's an interesting talk that lets Nitzberg talk about how and why this follow up film came to be, and Knoxville explain his role in that as well. Nitzberg also shares some interesting stories about spending a lot of time with the Whites and in West Virginia as a whole that help to put some of what we see in the film into perspective. It's a good commentary and if you enjoyed the feature, or at the very least found it interesting, this is worth listening to.
Just as interesting is a massive selection of deleted scenes. There's over eighty minutes of material here and it's essentially more of the same, but it's worth checking out if you were interested in what you saw in the feature. An Interview With The Wild And Wonderful Team (3:20) is a brief roundable discussion with Knoxville, Tremaine and Nitzberg that explains how this project came to be and covers some of the same ground as the commentary. There's also a brief behind the scenes documentary that shows what the shoot was like called My Tribeca Story (3:20). All in all, there's a pretty healthy selection of supplements here, but with that said, the American Express advertising that occurs before you get to the main menu and before each trailer that plays before you get to the main menu (and which is all over the packaging) is completely obnoxious.
The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia is interesting, even if it really doesn't have much of a point or a message to it. The documentary lets the family members speak for themselves, and while it's disturbing to see that very few of them seem in the least bit concerned by their lifestyle, if nothing else it's an eye opener. The DVD looks and sounds about as good as it needs to and contains some interesting extra features as well. Recommended for those with an interest in hillbilly subculture.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.