SXSW Film: Looking In on God's Vegas, aka Branson, Missouri
The city of Branson, Missouri is home to under 11,000 permanent residents, but enjoys more than 7.5 million visitors a year. A new documentary premiering at SXSW Film this week takes a peek behind the rhinestone curtain to look at the lives of the performers when they’re not on stage. It’s called ‘We Always Lie to Strangers.’
It's been home to a sort of Vegas for the God-fearing set for over a hundred years. (And also calls itself the 'Live Music Capital of the World,' which would rightly rankle many Austinites.) There's no gambling, and not many bars. The shows -- over a hundred of them -- are downright vanilla, with not much skin, no swearing and inoffensive humor. One of the characters in the film likes to quote from an episode of the Simpsons where they take a trip to the the city: Branson is "like Vegas if it were run by Ned Flanders," Homer says.
The performers of Branson are a varied lot, despite the homogeneity displayed on stage. One of the key characters in the film is Bill Lennon, brother to the sweetly harmonizing-Lennon Sisters (of 'The Lawrence Welk Show' fame) but also a liberal Democrat, who still performs with his (huge) family in Branson. His family moved there from California, yet Lennon is anything but a fish out of water. When asked after the screening how he felt as a liberal in the deep red heart of conservative country, Lennon replied that he loved it there. To say otherwise would “be like moving to Harlem and complaining that its too black.” Lennon said that there’s a love of family, performing and neighborly concern that make it a special place.
“In Branson, if you’ve pulled over and your hood's up, it’s not two minutes before someone else pulls over to help you.”
But ‘We Always Lie to Strangers’ (which takes its name from a Vance Randolph book about the mythologies of the Ozarks) also shows that underneath that neighborly charm and old-school glitz there are some rough realities.
Over the course of five years of work on the documentary, the filmmakers captured plenty of hardship for those in Branson's limelight. There's the economic downturn that hits the Branson tourist class harder than most, causing job cuts and the weakest season the town's seen in some time; the effects of aging on the town's storied performers, and the implications that has for their primary customers; and the difficulties for the town's many gay performers as they walk (and dance, and sing) among Branson's many bible-thumping residents.
These folks have a lot of history and close family ties, which appealed to the film's director-producers, AJ Schnack and David Wilson. “I grew up in Missouri, it's my home,” Wilson said during a Q&A session after the first screening of the film today. “Branson always stood out as this small town that's really large. I thought it could tell us a lot about family and our country.”
Some families have performed on stage together for nearly half a century, and it’s those ties, and the heartbreaking way that they are sometimes severed by time, love, politics and money that make ‘We Always Lie to Strangers’ so endearing.
'We Always Lie to Strangers' has two more screenings this week, tomorrow, Tuesday, March 12 at 11:45 a.m. at the Violet Crown Cinema; and again on Friday, March 15 at 2 p.m. at the Alamo Ritz.