The town of Branson, Missouri (population: 10,520) is a mecca of foot-stompin’ music and white bread, gimcrack entertainment. It is also the center of attention in “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a years-in-the-life look at this popular Ozark Mountain tourist (7.5 million a year!) attraction from AJ Schnack and David Wilson, the former having also unreeled his “Caucus,” a behind-the scenes look at politics in the Midwest, as the Closing Night selection at this year’s AFI DOCS festival. They and producer-editor Nathan Truesdell all worked on “Convention,” presented at SilverDocs in 2009. They have been closely associated with Branson area, growing up nearby, so their decision to make this film was a natural progression for them. While AFI only gave out audience awards in this transition year for the documentary fest, with neither Schnack film taking home an award, “Strangers” did garner a Special Jury Recognition Award from SXSW, where it world premiered. It will certainly play well in Middle America.
The filmmakers look at four musical families, some with multiple generations still entertaining the visiting hordes, as their stories and lives overlap, as they dip in an out of marriages and relationships, or as their finances flourish and flounder, especially when the economy sours during the course of the film’s 5-year shoot. Surprisingly the filmmakers, while getting to know the “cast” in 2008, jettisoned most of the footage they shot that year. The amount of comfort and respect evolved in the ensuing years. Heck, who wants a camera shoved in your face all the time. Answer: Surprisingly, not a lot of the the entertainers in town, at least initially.
As the filmmakers told a Q+A audience after a festival screening: “Show people are used to putting on a show. They don’t necessarily want the camera there when it’s not being put on.” Despite the lengthy list of characters (their names appear overlaid on screen during most of their appearances) you don’t need a program to keep track of them, as they become quite memorable as each one takes to the screen. Country shtick and bright harmonies are abundant as the viewer gets a wide-eyed view of on-stage and backstage goings on. Some of the banter borders on nasty as slighted performers don’t hold back their various confessionals before the camera.
These colorful (literally and figuratively), real people drive the film, with snippets of their performances providing fleeting entertainment zings. The Presley family (not related to Elvis) has been part of the local landscape since putting on their first show in 1967. The red-haired Raeanne Presley, a transplant to the area since the sixth grade and married to the drummer son of patriarch Lloyd, is also the mayor. The Magnificent Variety Show, with over 300 costume changes and 75 numbers, features the Tinoco family, including their 4-year-old Shirley Temple-esque daughter Tinoco. They have the biggest business struggles as they try to launch their show. The proudly Democratic Lennon family includes The Lennon Sisters, the famous vocal group of four sisters popular on “The Lawrence Welk Show” a half-century ago. The movie delves briefly into the tragic death of patriarch William Lennon at 53 years old, shot and killed by a delusional stalker in 1969. His son, Bill, moved his entire family from Venice, California, to Branson, and have entertained for the masses for decades since. Then there’s performers Chip Holderman, a divorced father of two, and his partner, Ryan Walton. Yup, a gay couple adrift in the Bible Belt sea.
If you think life is going to be pretty simple in Branson, think again. There are just as many flaws there as in the rest of America. Branson, at least, covers them up with a smile and some greasepaint for the crowds, because, rain or shine, the show must go on. There are some painfully raw situations shown here, as the filmmakers mingle the stories into a powerful salute to the town’s animated spirit. Despite all the differences and attitudes on display in the film, you have a gut feeling the curtain won’t ever fall on Branson. The troubles here don’t have a capital “T” as they do in “The Music Man,” unless you’re watching it performed as one of the spectacular, dazzling, musical extravaganzas in town.
Like the Leap Day tornado that hit the area in 2012, there’s a resiliency afoot here. “We Always Lie to Strangers” won’t muster up storm-size crowds (well, it might if they play it in Branson), but it’s a nicely observed slice of life.