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October 10, 2014


Film by Paul Duane and Robert Gordon tells violent, drug-spiked tale of dying outlaw looking for redemption through music – in raw, gritty detail.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Jerry McGill was a violent dope fiend, con artist, burglar, bank robber, FBI fugitive and hard-time yard bird. He was also a singer and songwriter with good looks and talent to spare. McGill recorded one single for Sun Records in 1959 and then drifted into a life of crime that led him to spend decades on the lam, often living under aliases and occasionally dressing as a woman to escape the law. Very Extremely Dangerous, a film by Irish director Paul Duane and Memphis music maven Robert Gordon to be released by Fat Possum Records on November 25, 2014, follows McGill during his recent attempt at a musical comeback, detailing the chaos, carnage and mayhem left in his wake.

The package includes an audio CD that features McGill's lost album and also the feature's score, both produced by Jim Lancaster. Guests include Ry Cooder, Alex Chilton, the North Mississippi All Stars, Travis Wammack, Jim Dickinson, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, the Memphis Horns, Roland Janes, and Waylon Jennings with the Waymore Band.

When director-producer Duane and producer Gordon caught up to McGill, he had settled in Huntsville, Alabama after reconnecting via the Internet with Joyce, his girlfriend from his Memphis music heyday. He had also been diagnosed with lung cancer, which the then-69-year-old takes as a license to liberally shoot up and pop pills before Duane’s camera. His voice — big, swampy and soaring on Sun single #326 “Lovestruck” backed with “I Wanna Make Sweet Love” by Jerry McGill and the Topcoats — is reduced to a dry, ravaged croak, but somewhere within its cigarette-ash coated rasp the spark of an artist with a deep, albeit dark, soul glows. At this point in Very Extremely Dangerous, Duane observes that McGill is “a dying outlaw looking for redemption.” Later, he comes to see McGill as unredeemable but attains a new understanding of the power of love.

With the help of Duane, Gordon and a host of Memphis musicians including Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars and legendary producer-guitarist Roland Janes — all of whom assemble for a session backing McGill at Sam Phillips Recording Services, the rickety-but-still-violent and ceaselessly foul-mouthed desperado attempts a revival as he waits to go under the knife to have a section of his lung removed. A concert at Memphis’ famed Hi-Tone is also staged. Although McGill is obviously intoxicated, he nonetheless reveals the shards of his tattered charisma when he moves the crowd to join him in singing his obscure, unreleased song “No More Tears.”

As Duane accompanies McGill through what might be his final days — he actually died on May 30, 2013 from cancer and kidney failure — the reprobate buys a shotgun, brags about his 97 arrests in Memphis alone, recounts the story of his capture by police in a Florida crack house, contemplates suicide and perhaps even murder, and talks about his ’70s career as a co-songwriter, rhythm guitarist, tour manager and running buddy with Waylon Jennings under the alias Curtis Buck.

“Johnny Cash ain’t never been to prison in his life,” McGill rasps with venom in his voice. “He ain’t no criminal. Neither was Waylon. And they called ’em outlaws. I’m an outlaw!
McGill proves true to his word in footage drawn from the mid-’70s underground film Stranded in Canton, by the venerable Memphis photographer William Eggleston. A conflict with artist Randall Lyon escalates to the hair-raising moment when McGill presses a partially-loaded gun to Lyon’s temple and escapes from cold-blooded murder with the luck of an empty chamber.

“We played nightclubs, beer joints all over Memphis,” McGill tells Duane’s lens. “I played every one of ’em. I knew every burglar, dope dealer, armed robber, forger — and I liked ’em. That’s how I got involved in it.”

Duane has directed three documentaries including Barbaric Genius, about writer and former competitive chess player John Healy, who fell into a life of homelessness and petty crime. He was compelled to search for McGill after reading about his exploits in Robert Gordon’s heralded 1995 book chronicling the rise of the Bluff City’s blues, soul and pop music, It Came From Memphis. Gordon’s own film credits include Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story and Muddy Waters — Can’t Be Satisfied.

“McGill may be obscure, but he’s a strange part of the jigsaw puzzle of Memphis music,” says Duane. “I wanted to make films about a lot of legendary wild men, but Jerry’s the one who emailed me back. Making the film was memorable, unsettling, impoverishing and enriching. Jerry is as close to a great literary character as anyone I’ve been lucky to film with. It wasn’t like making a documentary. He was writing a novel with us as his assistants.” (Gordon thinks they were McGill characters.)

Eventually Duane resigned from that role. The bickering between McGill and his girlfriend that weaves through the film finally comes to a head in Mississippi as McGill attempts to strangle her while she drives, then tries to beat her — over Duane’s audible protests — after she pulls over at a casino hotel to eject him from the car. “I never for a second wanted to stop filming,” Duane says, “until, suddenly, I did. It was the right thing to do.”

Nonetheless, Very Extremely Dangerous concludes with Duane making a final visit to McGill, who has thrown away his shotgun, survived his cancer surgery and been taken in again by Joyce. “You get attached to Jerry,” she explains. “He’s crazy, but you do.”

“If there are any larger truths I learned while making this film, it is to never think you understand a story,” the director observes. “Understand slowly, if at all. Jerry did many terrible things, but was deeply loved. What can you say about that? The other insight I gained is that those who live by the sword are sometimes enabled to die in a comfortable bed surrounded by their loved ones.”



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