Los Angeles Times

'Mule Skinner Blues'

Times Staff Writer

Five years ago New York filmmaker Stephen Earnhart went to Jacksonville, Fla., to shoot a music video with recording artist Jim White in which a number of residents of a nearby trailer park worked as extras. Among them was Beanie Andrew, an irrepressible 70-ish man who has a lawn service and a love of singing and dancing country-western style. He also confessed to a 60-year dream of starring in a movie in which he would emerge from a muddy swamp in a gorilla suit. Andrew persuaded Earnhart to help him realize his dream--in a 15-minute short--if the filmmaker was allowed to film Beanie and his friends and their lives.

The result, Earnhart's debut documentary feature, is the irresistible "Mule Skinner Blues," which the American Cinematheque will screen at the Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian tonight through Sunday, with Earnhart scheduled to attend all screenings. It will resume without Earnhart, Wednesday through May 12. All screenings will be at 7:30 p.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. except Sundays, when it screens at 5 p.m. only. What's most important about "Mule Skinner Blues," which is about the value of dreams, is that as amusing as it often is, it is even more affectionate. Earnhart rightly does not view Beanie, his friends and neighbors as trailer trash, nor even as bizarre eccentrics, but as free-spirited individuals who display considerable talent and the courage to be themselves. They are creative individuals who have yet to win the recognition they crave but haven't given up, although several of them also exhibit self-destructive streaks in the form of alcoholism.

Beanie's long-term friend Larry Parrot, a lifelong horror fan who writes spooky short stories for his own pleasure and runs a cleaning service with his wife, comes up with a script, called "Turnabout Is Fair Play," which will work in Andrew's long-dreamed-of moment. Other participants will include Jeannie Holliman, a vivacious, 70-year-old country-and-western singer and songwriter; Ricky Lix, a hard-driving rock guitarist; and Steve Walker, a singer-guitarist songwriter with his own band, of which Lix is a member. Also on hand is Annabelle Lea Usher, a reflective woman whose dream was to become a costume designer and who serves as the film's most articulate commentator on creative drives and artistic impulses.

The one among them who lives closest to the edge is definitely Walker, a craggily handsome but ravaged-looking middle-aged man, a traumatized Vietnam vet and survivor of five failed marriages who is also a welder. By his own admission he hasn't been legally sober for 30 years; it's amazing that he's as functional as he is. "I want to find a woman who is able to take me as I am," he says, "a drunk with a future."

After telling the stories of these people Earnhart jumps ahead three years to 2000, to catch up with them and to show us "Turnabout Is Fair Play" in the context of a gala local premiere. Some of what has happened to the participants in the interim is positive, showing human resilience, and some of it is poignant. "Mule Skinner Blues" leaves us with a fresh awareness of just how much life can change in a mere 1,000 days.


Unrated. Times guidelines. Suitable family fare; alcoholism viewed with compassion, but its consequences are not glossed over.

'Mule Skinner Blues'

A Steel Carrot presentation of a Clive Barker and Sundance Channel production in association with Solaris and Bean-Tyle productions. Producer-director Stephen Earnhart. Producer-cinematographer Victoria Ford. Executive producers Greg and Gavin O'Connor. Composer John M. Davis. Editor Ellen Goldwasser. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Exclusively at the Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian, 6717 Hollywood Blvd., (323) 466-FILM.

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