There’s all sorts of ways one can create a documentary film about a band or musician. Sometimes the filmmaker is a fly on the wall watching, judgment free, as things go kind of crazy and unfold in front of them. Superior docs in this vein are D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan doc “Don’t Look Back,” Sam Jones’s Wilco doc “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and Ondi Timoner’s “Dig.” Other music docs are character studies and almost odes to artists the filmmaker loves. Docs like the excellent Bill Withers doc “Still Bill” or something like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” spring to mind. While I’m definitely more of a fan of the fly on the wall technique, there’s something to be said for both types of doc and Barr Weissman’s “The Secret to a Happy Ending” seems to be concocted by a guy who loves the Drive By Truckers.
And who can blame him? For over ten years the DBT’s have been weaving their tales of Southern conflict with amazing, epic shows showered in beer and chased with a bottle of hard liquor they pass around on stage. Constantly bucking the notion that Southerners are closed minded, racist, bible thumping right wingers, lead singers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley constantly strive for honesty in the lyrics while still paying tribute to their Southern roots. As a band the Drive by Truckers are indeed Southern to the core but human almost to a fault and Weissman’s doc captures this perfectly.
However, if you’re a fan of the band (like me) you might want to see a little more of the band’s dark side because for such an intriguing and diverse band, “The Secret to a Happy Ending” pretty much follows the “Rock Doc 101” handbook of filmmaking. They’ve gossiped about hiatuses and recently lost a songwriter and guitarist in Jason Isbell, who split to form his own band after divorcing the Truckers’ bass player Shonna Tucker. We diehard fans want the inside scoop and, in that aspect, the film holds back. Plus, there’s all that drinking. While the band is fueled by talent and never saying die, they are also notoriously big drinkers and that’s simply not covered in this film. Granted, I’m not sure how you could portray this onscreen without it seeming silly or forced and to the best of my knowledge the bands never choked a performance due to inebriation, but “The Secret to a Happy Ending” simply glosses over the band’s greatest excess and it just seems kind of odd.
Still, there’s much here for fans of the band to love and even better, if you’ve heard of the band but haven’t actually heard them, this is a great primer. All the band members are given equal time to talk about how they joined the ranks and their feelings on the state of the band. While Hood and Cooley are the frontmen, there’s always been a very collaborative feeling to the group and Weissman makes note of that as well. We also get to meet folks who inspired some great songs like Hood’s Uncle George A. who served in World War II and inspired the song “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” Yeah, John Wayne had something to do with it too but not in the way Uncle George or Hood tell the tale or sing the song. Another tale of a record release party shut down by a tornado is given life as the band tells the tale of one of their worst gigs ever which lead to the song “Tornadoes.”
The film is nearly as rich in it’s storytelling as the Drive by Truckers music is and it’s a fun, well-made movie for fans and newcomers to the music. While I very much enjoyed “The Secret to a Happy Ending,” I still wish it was a little more down n’ dirty and packed some more “oomph.”