The Wild and Wonderful Tales of Jesco White: The Films Reviewed

Andrew reviews and chronicles all the movies that feature redneck, mountain dance master, Jesco White.

Cult hero/bona-fide redneck Jesco White of Boone County, West Virginia, is among the few Appalachian Mountain dance performers still left in the world.  Both an entertainer and gifted performance artist with a unique approach to dancing, Jesco White is a poster child of the so-called ‘white trash’ culture stuck in a perpetual purgatory between intoxicated violence and moments of clarity.  The son the late and famed master of Appalachian Mountain dancing, Donald Ray White, Jesco would inherit his father’s shoes literally and figuratively, picking up his moves and adding his own unique spin on the technique.  Initially filming a documentary of his own named Talking Feet on his perfected Mountain Dancing, Donald Ray White’s career as an entertainer was tragically cut short when he was shot to death on his own property over a dispute with a neighbor.  While many of Jesco’s brothers would inherit their father’s genes, almost all of them perished under similarly violent circumstances, leaving Jesco as the only surviving member of the family still practicing the dancing germane to the region. 

Much like his family, Jesco White is as much blessed as he is cursed, adorned with a unique talent but unable to shake his crippling and at times, life threatening demons.  Considered a split personality, Jesco has been described by some as having a soft side, a violent side, and an Elvis Presley side, sometimes all three at once.  Given the checkered track record of Jesco and the White family as a whole, Jesco’s story could well have disappeared into the mire completely.  That is, until a PBS documentary called Dancing Outlaw presented both a unique focus on Jesco White and gave the troubled man a second chance at life as a whole new legion of fans discovered him and eventually the White family itself with the MTV produced documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.  Soon Jesco would feature in mainstream media including providing voice work for both the videogame Grand Theft Auto V, the Cartoon Network show Squidbillies and even appearing in the Beck music video Loser.  In addition to being referenced in several songs by Ministry, Mastadon and The Atomic Bitchwax.  It didn’t take long for a fictionalized biopic of the man’s life, known as White Lightnin’, to come into the discussion. 

With the life of a unique talent and deeply troubled individual, The Movie Sleuth takes a concentrated look at three seminal documentaries and one still controversial cinematic highlight of the life of one of West Virginia’s most infamous, oddly endearing and eccentric American hillbillies.

Dancing Outlaw (1991)
Part of an ongoing series named Different Drummer and the one that started it all and put a spotlight on the White family for the very first time, the PBS documentary Dancing Outlaw introduced the world to the troubled life of Jesco White in his hometown of Boone County, West Virginia.  Opening with the scruffy, bearded Jesco dancing with a boombox in hand across a rickety wooded suspension bridge dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and tapdancing shoes, intercut with shots of the decaying trailer park cityscape, Dancing Outlaw announces itself as an eye opener on an almost alien world of poverty, hicks and a personality at its epicenter that is as charming as he is terrifying.  Originally designed as an ode to Donald Ray White, who lost his life to a domestic dispute midway into making the documentary Talking Feet (excerpts of which are shown here), the filmmakers caught wind of Jesco’s magnetic and madcap personality.  This was the first time Jesco was allowed to speak publicly about his split personality disorder, where he either shifts between Jekyll and Hyde or becomes Elvis Presley, replete with a private Elvis Presley room adorned with endless memorabilia of The King.  Among the funniest and most memorable scenes involves Jesco recounting an episode in his relationship with his frumpy older wife when he held a knife to her neck and threatened to kill her if she fried and served anymore “sloppy, slimy eggs”.  Jesco’s recitation of the event is told so honestly and matter of fact with calm collection, you could read his delivery as a deadpan joke except that it’s not, making the story simultaneously hilarious and horrific. 

While some of the other Whites show up here including his mother Bertie Mae White, the focus is primarily on Jesco and his Mountain Dancing.  Among the film’s more poignant moments involves Jesco recalling the night of his father’s death, which he describes in such acute detail you feel as though you’re being led through a crime scene investigation.  Just once for a moment, Jesco breaks down in tears as he talks about Donald Ray White.  Clearly the traumatic event and sense of loss in Jesco’s life is a period of time he and all the Whites are reliving on a day to day basis.  But like anything else in Jesco White’s existence, it doesn’t take long for him to return to indulging in substance abuse and getting into domestic disputes with his wife, including a riotous exchange between the two sharing harsh words with one another as well as Bertie Mae passing judgment on their marriage. 

Though only thirty minutes in length and lensed on low grade VHS tape, every minute of Dancing Outlaw is documentary gold!  Few documentaries have tapped this deeply into the heart of madness afflicting the county and encapsulate the attitude of the region through the eyes of one man.  Eventually a more evenly rounded picture of the White family as a whole would emerge in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, which also included excerpts from Dancing Outlaw in its preamble.  For the moment though, Dancing Outlaw is a bona fide classic overview of hillbilly Hell (or Heaven to some) with a most enigmatic and fascinating personality representing the apex of a troubling yet colorful brood. 

Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood (1999)
Catching wind of Dancing Outlaw, comic actor Tom Arnold invited Jesco White to come to Hollywood to guest star in an ultimately unused episode of Roseanne alongside Roseanne Barr and John Goodman.  Enter Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood, a somewhat weaker but still entertaining companion piece to its predecessor which follows Jesco White’s brief trip to Tinseltown!  The sight of the formerly unkempt dirtball, now well-groomed and dressed as he dances his way down Hollywood Boulevard with a boombox in hand, is a startlingly rare image of the man.  Even more exciting are scenes of Jesco mingling with Hollywood stars on film sets, providing a unique travelogue of an outsider experiencing the mainstream movie business firsthand.  Not everyone takes to his enigmatic personality however, as Roseanne openly voices objections to a swastika tattoo on Jesco’s hand, likely leading to the episode never being aired.  To be fair though, Jesco later learns with disgust what the tattoo actually represents and has it removed.  Though there’s not much to take from this loose supplementary extra to the classic documentary, Jesco Goes to Hollywood is a nifty footnote for the completest wanting to see a fish out of water.  For Jesco, the exciting experience is as disorienting and displacing for him as it is for us on our first foray into the heart of Boone County. 

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009)
Years after the focus on Jesco White, Dancing Outlaw, was released on the unsuspecting public, MTV and Jackass’ Jeff Tremaine sought out the Appalachian Mountain dancer once again.  To their surprise and delight, it turned out the entire White family had their own set of crazy and outrageous stories to tell and also managed to catch up with the Dancing Outlaw himself too!  Directed by Dancing Outlaw’s producer, Julien Nitzberg, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a wildly entertaining, hilarious, outrageous and at times, poignant look at the dysfunctional, violent and oddly loveable band of hillbillies known as the Whites.  Beginning by going down the family tree, the film starts with Donald Ray White and Bertie Mae White before wading through the entire lineage including distant relatives who have worked hard to escape the criminal influences of the Whites’ more dangerous members.  Early on we learn before coal miner and Appalachian Mountain dancing legend Donald Ray White’s death, he found a loophole in the Social Security system and was able to garner lifelong disability checks for all of his descendants.  Unfortunately, the abruptness and violent nature of his death deprived the family of a father figure, leaving them Carte Blanche to run wild with an endless surplus of money despite never having to work and getting either inebriated or into trouble on a regular basis.

Though the filmmakers clearly root for the Whites endless sloppy partying, there’s a fair amount of dialogue from the outside as well, notably from denizens and members of the law of Boone County eager to speak otherwise to the illicit allure of the Whites.  One even goes as far as to condemn the documentarians themselves for giving the Whites a spotlight over more qualified and talented individuals from Boone County who have actually tried to make something of their lives rather than just living off the government tit.  Much like the prior, much shorter and singular focus on Jesco White Dancing Outlaw, there’s as much room for outrage as there is for sympathy, capturing the grieving process of the White family during the passing of Bertie Mae White.  It’s moments like these that the Whites let their guard down and show beneath their hardened and stoic exteriors, there’s a heart still beating in their chests.  But as with anything else in their lives, it doesn’t take long for them to recede back into snorting cocaine, smoking weed and generally raising Hell. 

Among the funniest and most jaw dropping moments are how the Whites’ lifestyle affect minors in their clan.  For instance, Kirk White casually recounts stories of violent domestic disputes with her ex-husband as her young son Tylor eggs her ill words about her ex with profanity and flipping the bird to the camera.  The sight of such a young minor uttering these obscenities and threats of violence have no problem rivaling the fictionalized and staged sights of Linda Blair committing crudities in The Exorcist.  While ultimately inconclusive about what it thinks of the Whites and where they’re going, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia is a definitive overview of the strange and outrageous family which has the peculiarly charming effect on outsiders, almost inviting you to actually wanting to spend time with these wild ones, if only in small doses.  It did a better job of creating a vague sense of camaraderie with these people by letting them be themselves than what the dramatized film version of Jesco White’s life ever did.

White Lightnin’ (2009)
The British produced feature film debut of writer-director Dominic Murphy presents a biography on Jesco White so loose with the facts that it still has viewers evenly split down the middle regarding its validity.  Shot largely in Croatia though fairly faithfully recreating the Boone County region of West Virginia, White Lightnin’ stars British actor Edward Hogg as the titular protagonist and omniscient voiceover narrator, chronicling his childhood of huffing gasoline and reform school before picking up his father’s Mountain Dancing technique.  In and out of prison before spending a majority of his life in an insane asylum, Jesco soon has a second chance at making it when he begins touring with his Mountain Dancing at local clubs and bars.  But like Jesco says throughout the picture, his weakness and impulsivity almost forecast the eventual inevitable foray into drugs and violence. 

For the first two acts of White Lightnin’, the story of Jesco White is treated with a fair amount of reverence.  Edward Hogg, though of distinctly English descent, gives a committed and intense performance, providing a thick Southern American accent and mastering the dancing outlaw’s moves to a tee.  Carrie Fisher turns up in a role as you’ve never seen her: an aged housewife/hillbilly at heart who Visually the material presents the image of West Virginia in a most peculiar use of monochrome, rendered by draining the color footage so bone dry of saturation it looks neither black-and-white nor colored.  In other scenes peppered throughout the film, footage is projected on a CRT television and shot again, providing a distorted and pixelated visual scheme not unlike the gritty digital video images of Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy.  Sonically White Lightnin’ skirts between country and Southern gothic before venturing into steadily unsettling industrial abrasion. 

Things seem pretty faithful to the facts for this international production, but then the film takes a swan dive off the rails by the time it reaches the fictitious third act and imagines Jesco running wildly down a yellow brick road which will encompass everything from triple homicide, demonic possession, self-mutilation and self-consumption.  Even the events of father Donald Ray White’s death are fabricated here, depicting him being dragged by a noose from the back of a truck when in fact he was shot on his own property with Jesco present on the scene.  While playing fast and loose with the truth can make for good drama, just what in the Hell were they trying to do here?  For those who were upset about the licentious embellishments of history often seen in Oliver Stone’s work (notably The Doors), his actions pale in comparison those taken by writer-director Dominic Murphy.  Sure you can read the unrelentingly gruesome and disturbing finale of White Lightnin’ as some sort of social critique of hillbilly culture’s self-destructive tendencies, but this was ridiculous! A shame everything the filmmakers worked so hard to convey in the first two acts of the film were squandered on this offensive fantasy denouement.  I honestly wonder what Jesco White would think if he saw himself chopping off his fingers before eating them in between smoking a cigarette in his still intact hand. 

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-Andrew Kotwicki