Personal film projects by musicians can be a decidedly hit and miss affair. Amongst the smattering of decent offerings such as It Might Get Loud and Anvil are a glut of below average pseudo documentaries designed merely to raise the profile of the artist and generate an awareness of their latest musical venture. The multi-platform nature of Gruff Rhys’ and Dylan Goch’s new film American Interior, encompassing the simultaneous release of a book, album and app, overtly promotes the other aspects of the project. At the same time however, it stands alone as an enjoyable film, one that you may feel inclined to explore further once it’s over. It helps that director/star Rhys (and founding member of successful 90s Welsh experimental rock band Super Furry Animals) has an intriguing narrative hook up his sleeve – the life story of his mysterious adventuring ancestor ‘Don Juan’ Evans.
Essentially playing out like a hip version of the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are, the film begins with Rhys giving us a brief overview of this young adventurer’s travels to the US in the pioneering era of the 1790s in a bid to discover tribes of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. Evans’ trek through the American interior brought him to a number of historically-significant events, including his swearing allegiance to the Spanish to help appropriate North Dakota from the Canadians, and being the first person to map out the Missouri river before dying in New Orleans at the tender age of 29.
The film has a delightful approach to the subject matter, giving us an exquisitely-shot black & white view of the American landscape as we join Rhys on a historical lecture tour – taking in bars, pool halls and even a somewhat bewildered high school class. It is in these lectures that Rhys endears the audience to his pursuit, the characterful Welshman earnest in his quest for the truth behind his ancestor’s travels while amusingly managing his low tech one man slideshow presentation. Wearing his heart on his sleeve he tries out his intended tunes for the soundtrack during the lectures, the loose styling of which gives the film a fresh spontaneous feel, as if you’re just hanging out with a cool guy for 90 minutes. This is not the first time Rhys has embarked on a project close to his heart – his 2008 concept album Stainless Style (about the life of infamous car manufacturer John DeLorean) revealed a passion for documenting real life events, that comes into its own here.
In place of high tech graphics and historical re-enactments, the directors turn their budget limitations to their advantage as they have an entertaining felt puppet of Evans accompany Rhys throughout. The puppet’s fixed stoic expression keeps a smile on the viewer’s face while conveying the austere nature of the historic figure on which he is based. It’s a device that, while humorous, actually gives Evans a much-needed presence in the film, worthy of his co-starring opening credit and it’s a move that would make Jim Henson proud. Along the way Rhys comes across a variety of rich and colourful characters who discuss the history of their epic country with him. These include a philosophical ice fisherman and a gregarious New Orleans tour guide and they all play well against Rhys’ low key nature. This may not all add up to groundbreaking filmmaking, but as an entertaining and informative work American Interior stands out. And the road-tested theme tune is fantastic.
American Interior is in cinemas May 9th.
Words> Roy Swansborough