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By Brad Cook | November 8, 2003

As Scotty McAfee says in one of the three audio commentaries on this DVD, “Growin’ a Beard” is “the story of a town trying to hang onto its roots.” You might think a film about a beard growing contest sounds like watching Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” all the way through, but this one digs deeper into its subject matter, like all good documentaries should.
“Growin’ a Beard” is really about a lost slice of Americana, no matter how kitschy that might sound. Sure, it seems nutty that there’s a town called Shamrock, TX where you can visit a piece of the real Blarney Stone and compete in a contest that revolves around growing the best Donegal (an Irish beard that doesn’t include a mustache), but the people who live there are earnest about their heritage. Few of them might have any Irish blood running through their veins, but they stay loyal to their hometown despite the fact that it’s a brittle shell of its former self.
However, director Mike Woolf wasn’t content with showing us the history of this unusual contest and how the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade has declined with Shamrock’s fortunes. He throws in McAfee, an art director at an advertising agency and the owner of a thick beard that promises to give the others a run for their follicles. Dubbed “The Hairy Outsider,” McAfee worries that his participation in the contest, which he entered on a lark, will come across as an insult to the town, and the tension mounts as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. Woolf even passes around a photo of McAfee to get other contestants’ reactions.
Sorry, that was the Fox version of this film if they had turned it into a reality TV show. Actually, the people of Shamrock turn out to be happy to receive the attention and don’t mind an outsider entering at all. With that out of the way, Woolf crafts a nice slice-of-life portrait of a town that’s hit bottom but still clings to its traditions as the only way to keep going and hope for an economic revival. The shots of abandoned motels and shops along Route 66—bypassed by a freeway that killed businesses and forced residents to move—show us that such hopes are probably futile, but you have to admire their tenacity.
While the film itself is brief, Aspyr Media (they’re new to the DVD business, but they’ve made a mark for themselves in the computer game industry) made sure this release was packed with a bunch of extras that will either amuse or bore you, depending on how much you enjoyed the main attraction. Three featurettes cover the film’s premiere in Austin and Shamrock as well as the history of the first Donegal growing contest in 1939. They’re accompanied by a series of mildly interesting outtakes, a brief “How Not to Make a Documentary” video that showcases various mistakes Woolf made, and a repeat of contestant Mark Simpson’s comments complete with sub-titles (his speech patterns are…unique).
Woolf also sat down to record three commentaries with McAfee, Kevin Russell of The Gourds, who supplied the music for the film, and contestant Ray Wardlow, who has kept in touch with the director and supports the film as much as he can. There’s also a bonus short called “The 72 Oz. Steak,” an eight-minute piece about a friend of Woolf’s who takes up the challenge to eat a four-pound steak at a restaurant and skip paying for his meal. The short is funny and the commentaries add some color for those who don’t mind sitting through the documentary three more times. (I honestly enjoyed it, so it wasn’t a chore.)
This DVD also includes a bonus soundtrack of the excellent music The Gourds recorded for the film. You have to appreciate their folksy/country style, but if you do you’ll enjoy having this, and it will make the purchase more worthwhile.
So if you have a soft spot in your heart for off-beat documentaries (and I know I do), give this one a spin.

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