Very Extremely Dangerous, (2014): Movies

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As the late Jerry McGill helpfully reminds, through a gravel-gargling rasp during the new Fat Possum documentary Very Extremely Dangerous, neither Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings — world renowned, of course, as “outlaws” — ever actually went to jail. The same can’t be said for Jerry McGill, a lost-soul talent buried under a lifetime of bad choices. “I am an outlaw!” he bellows, underscoring the strange dichotomy that exists in both McGill and in the film.

Paul Duane and Robert Gordon, it’s clear, set out to uncover something redemptive in the violently dangerous McGill, who was filmed in the final days of his struggle with lung cancer. Something that would both make good on the promise of McGill’s lone single — the salacious rockabilly hoot “Lovestruck,” backed with “I Wanna Make Sweet Love” and recorded for Memphis’ Sun Records in 1959 — and on the idea that aged dope-fiend conmen can find their way to some final redemption.

Jerry McGill isn’t that person. As the documentarians follow him around on Very Extremely Dangerous, it becomes clear that McGill is long past the point of salvation. And that, they come to realize — we all do, as the film unfolds — is his choice. Riven by illness, and a lifetime on the run that, at one point, saw him crossdressing to stay one step ahead of the law, McGill barks and preens through moments that were meant to signal a comeback. An appearance at Hi-Tone finds McGill obviously loaded, veering through life with the same reckless vengeance that sent him into lawless obscurity in the first place.

During filming, after a particularly violent exchange with his long-suffering girlfriend Joyce, Duane quit the production. But even as McGill boasts about things that would shame prison lifers — not to mention, in archival footage, nearly killing a man on camera — there is a broken grandeur to his music making, something deeper to be found in his art. As damaging and reprehensible as McGill can be in real life, he still can find meaning through the lens of his scarifying, brutally frank songs.

Before Jerry McGill finally succumbs to cancer, he reunites with an ever-forgiving Joyce. Even Paul Duane returns to Very Extremely Dangerous, unable to look away from this impending train wreck — if only because there are these fleeting glimpses of beauty still rushing by.

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