Fact: Barr Weissman’s new documentary about the Drive-By Truckers The Secret To A Happy Ending started out with the intentions of being a “Love Letter to Rock & Roll” and ended up being a witness to some of the band’s most troubled times, rolling cameras and all.
Fact: If you watch The Secret To A Happy Ending hoping to see some sort of Jerry Springer-style-hair-pulling-name-calling-chair-throwing screechfest – or a Southern Gothic version of Sam Jones’ Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, forget about it. The Secret To A Happy Ending is neither of those.
Fact: If you watch The Secret To A Happy Ending hoping to see any of the above, then you need to get a life. You really do.
Weissman’s film project began in January of 2005, with plans of capturing a year’s worth of life with the Drive-By Truckers (and their families, both immediate and extended). One year became two and two slipped well into a third before it was all over. During that time the Truckers worked their asses off on the road and in the studio while the marriage of bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist/vocalist Jason Isbell slowly became more and more unsettled, finally coming apart. And not long after that, Isbell left the band.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart dealt with a similarly tough period in Wilco’s history with the documented “divorce” being the end of the musical marriage between bandleader Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. The biggest single difference between I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and The Secret To A Happy Ending is the fact that Jones’ movie needed a bad guy – and Bennett was unfairly villainized to the point where it seemed he was responsible for everything that wasn’t right (including Tweedy’s on-camera migraine-induced puking spell).
The Secret To A Happy Ending deals with the dissolution of a relationship in a more humane and, in its way, adult manner: there’s the something’s-not-quite-right tension; there’s subtle acknowledgement; there’s quiet struggle; there’s eventual resolution (Isbell forms the 400 Unit; the Truckers regroup and move on). The fact is, sometimes there’s no bad guy; sometimes everybody’s got some fault to bear; and sometimes it’s hard to know and it doesn’t matter anyway – move on.
And that’s what Weissman and the Truckers teach us in the end: move on, move on, move on.
Secret offers brilliantly-captured live performances by the full band, along with candid and casual moments with each member. Weissman does a fine job of putting all hands at ease and letting them speak openly; never in a schlocky Behind The Music manner, but simply from the heart. When drummer Brad Morgan talks about his passion for playing the drums (“I’m just not capable of anything else”); when Mike Cooley talks about his love for his kids and being a dad (“It’s great – it freaks me out on a daily basis … but everything I ever loved did”); and when a post-breakup Jason Isbell says he thinks the Truckers’ way of doing things will continue to work (“I hope so, anyway”), you know that they knew the camera was there, but they weren’t saying anything just for the sake of the camera. Classic moments: Cooley sitting by the fire with an acoustic playing “Space City”, looking gone, gone, gone with the song’s emotion as the final chord fades; Hood at home with his not-often-played-but-oughta-be mandolin, weaving his way through “Bulldozers And Dirt” with the kids just being kids in the background.
Weissman offers a number of moments with members of the band’s inner circle, including artist Wes Freed and his wife Jyl (Freed’s art is as much a part of who the Truckers are as Stanley Mouse’s was to the Dead); producer/engineer David Barbe (the Trucker on the other side of the glass in the studio); Muscle Shoals bass legend David Hood (yup – Patterson’s pappy); and long-time road general Dick Cooper. Again, no one seems poked or prodded by the camera or microphone – Weissman is a gifted interviewer and observer.
Are there revelations to be found in this movie? You’ll know when you get there. Patterson Hood offers the secret to a happy ending: “It’s knowing when to roll the credits.” By the time they roll at the end of The Secret To A Happy Ending you’re going to want to clap your hands and agree with Hood’s declaration at the end of “World of Hurt”: “It’s fuckin’ great to be alive.”