Imagine if one of your favorite artists allowed you to watch them write a song. You’d probably jump at the chance. If you’re intrigued by the thought, then you’ll enjoy seeing the new documentary on DVD about Sarah Shook, What It Takes: Film en Douze Tableaux directed by Gorman Bechard (What Were We Thinking Films).
What’s most interesting is that throughout the film we get to see the title track literally unfold in real-time. It’s not so much Shook unplugged as Shook in real-time. You’re with her for every syllable, chord and construct of a developing melody as it goes from her brain to the fretboard and then into her notebook. As Shook works on “What It Takes” throughout the night, we’re seeing the embryonic idea come into being and later taken into the studio. (And with the generous extras allowed by the DVD format, we get to view three others as they are being created.)
A lot has been said about Sarah Shook, a lot of it by herself including jaw dropping lines in songs like “drinkin’ water tonight ’cause I drank all the whiskey this mornin’” (“Dwight Yoakam”) and the communal country sing-along “Fuck Up” marked by the observation that “God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.” In “Misery Loves Company,” Shook brought you along in to her own private hell with the forewarning: “And no matter how I try I can’t seem to change my stars.”
By now we all know Shook is a honky tonk badass with genetic bloodlines to the outlaw country family tree. But as the reflective Years showed, she is a gifted writer whose songs like “Parting Words” only come around once in a while. “Good as Gold” could be widely covered and become a country standard for years to come.
It was Shook’s album Sidelong which caught the attention of film maker Gorman Bechard who has previously done documentaries about the Replacements, Grant Hart, Archers of Loaf and Lydia Loveless. Bechard first filmed a video of “Heal Me” attracting the attention of Bloodshot Records which signed her. Bechard went all in when he got a tattoo on his forearm of lyrics from “Dwight Yoakam.” If at first you see a tattoo on a filmmaker, a documentary about the subject is likely to follow and now we have What It Takes: Film en Douze Tableaux.
By casting Shook in the trailer as “a vegan, pansexual, atheist, civil-rights-activist singer/songwriter,” Bechard adds intrigue to the storyline. And by recounting in the opening his own attraction and fascination with Shook as an emerging songwriter, he gives both a fan’s passion and sense of adventure as to what will follow.
The film is broken out into a dozen chapters, a take-off on Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. Seeing Shook work her way through “What It Takes” gives greater context to her response to a question early in the film. When the director poses “If someone was to ask you how do you write songs,” Shook replies: “I would say I don’t. They just come to me.”
“What It Takes,” which appeared on Years released this past Spring, is an anchor and backdrop to frame Shook’s sense of community and activism. In the film we get to know Shook who is a mother, activist and bandleader. Originally homeschooled and married at a young age, she didn’t emerge as a songwriter until adulthood. The film celebrates Shook’s emergence as a local North Carolinian tending bar to signing a contract with Bloodshot.
All documentaries risk disrupting the balance between the level of detail and keeping the narrative moving. Bechard’s decision to focus on each of Shook’s band members in the Disarmers could have been a risk. But they are interesting personalities in their own right. Eric Petersen and since departed drummer John Howie, Jr have a particular screen presence. Howie is an ardent country music fan who likes the Carpenters and AC/DC. Petersen, the onetime member of the DB’s, holds court in scenes shot nude in his swimming pool. Petersen whose guitar work in Sidelong makes the Disarmers feel worthy of being Neil Young’s backup band, has a captivating wit of an old sage from years of rock and roll touring. Petersen’s demeanor also helps to slow down the frenetic pacing of scenes which are deliberately sped up as homage to Godard’s original film.
The clever set of extras are less outtakes than they are themed vignettes. They feel loose and limber and raw and unvarnished, adding a lighter touch to the more formal structure of the film. In “Guilty Pleasures,” two of the band members confess they are Abba fans. During “Aaron’s Team,” bassist Aaron Olivia shares his passion as a Green Bay Packers fanatic who balances touring schedule around the team’s schedule. The drummer’s only connection to Green Bay is a wildly drunken night spent on tour with a band that opened for Soul Asylum.
The band’s lifestyle is hardly glamorous. In “Horror Stories From the Road,” they describe how their van is broken into, leaving a melee of nuts and berries strewn everywhere. They have to drive twelve hours from South By Southwest just so they can play a show on the way home. And in the middle of the night at an Airbnb, Shook confesses to acrobatic feats that land her on her ass, only to remind that it’s probably not the best thing to do when you’re in the van for thirteen hours the next day. Shook, it turns out, may still have fangs in her knuckles from being bitten by a python at a party. She confesses to not remembering the incident in “Sarah’s Tattoos” but witnesses stake claim that Shook exclaimed shock in a comic primal southern accent.
In an unscripted rambling conversation while they watch the film, the director and editor Chloe Barczak chit chat in something between a barroom conversation or a rock and roll episode of the Talking Dead. Barczak reveals they had a hundred and fifty clips to choose from of Shook writing songs. Barczak imagines what it would be like to have everyone of your favorite musicians do the same.
Among all of the extras, not surprisingly it’s Shook’s writing that you’re most drawn to in the three segments entitled “Sarah Writes a Song.” In one she prefaces her day’s work as writing a song about the poison of racism. As she narrates her thoughts, you can feel her working up to get at something that feels like a blank canvas. In the third extra, she is working on the song “Years.” What’s most interesting is when she stops and pauses between lines and contemplates where she goes next.
In an era when commercial country radio still continues to shut out female artists, Shook is among a group that has redefined gender and reinvigorated the genre. Merle Haggard once sang “last night the bottle let me down.” When you hear Shook sing the stinging line “the bottle never let me down the way you do,” it makes you think of country past and future. There is an old saying from one time rock scribe Jon Landau who wrote the prophetic words that he had seen rock and roll future and its name was Bruce Springsteen. (In a self-mocking induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Leonard Cohen (in front of Landau) recast the line as “I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s name is not Leonard Cohen.” It made me think about country future and be able to transpose the words that I have seen the future of country music and her name is Sarah Shook. But in deference to Shook who recently said she is too rock and roll to be seen as purely a country artist, this is not your mother’s country music.
Shook is still developing as an artist and there is somewhat of guarded veneer, perhaps even shyness, underneath her forthright outspokenness. But when Shook takes the risk of letting you in to watch her create her art, you can’t ask for anything more from an artist.
I’m left with a line that she says that sums it all up.
“Every writer embellishes what they write but the core components are as real as fuck. That’s based on life experience. I think that fact makes you feel it every time. It doesn’t matter if it’s the third time or three-hundredth time that you’ve sung the same song. It’s still fuckin real.”
What It Takes: Film en Douze Tableux (Directed By: Gorman Bechard; Producer: Jay Smales; Editor: Chloe Barczak. For more information: disarmersdoc.com)