I’m not sure if I am the first or only person to approach Homemade Hillbilly Jam as an auteur piece, but given the success of Rick Minnich’s later film, Forgetting Dad, I don’t think I’ll be the last.While not as focused, rich, or evocative as Minnich’s’ subsequent film, Homemade Hillbilly Jam is competently executed examination of folk music and culture centered around the Ozark Mountain region. At the center of the broadly cast net is the Bilyeu family, and interviews with singer and songwriter Mark Bilyeu (of the band Big Smith) give the film its most reflective moments.
The film ripples out from the Bilyeau family to examine the portrayal of “hillbillies” in contemporary culture and examine the ways in which various people who identify themselves as such negotiate and at times even exploit those cultural stereotypes. While the film is certainly less focused than Forgetting Dad, I do think it avoids being shallow or superficial.
The strongest connection I see to Minnich’s later work is the film’s central preoccupation with family. Is history destiny? Is a person’s identity more strongly determined by his choices or his inheritance? A central theme in the film is the emergence of the neo-hillbilly, and in one early scene a member of the Bilyeu family wonders openly whether his children will have the same sense of kinship and closeness to members of their extended family that his own generation has felt. The concept of family is one of those broad, universal themes, the examination of which makes Minnich’s films so accessible.
If there was a minor disappointment with the film, it is that the camerawork and cinematography, while competent and professional tends to record the material rather than shape or present it. Only once, when a close up of two brothers in a canoe zooms back to reveal the proximity of a suburban neighborhood just over the banks of what we thought was a wilderness river, did the visuals make a strong impression. That said, the inclusion of music is generous–and the inclusion of bonus musical tracks on the DVD will be a welcome boon to those whose interest in the film is folk music. (It would be a nice companion piece to Matt and Erica Hinton’s Awake My Soul.)
I love works that explore the regional and cultural diversity of the United States. Homemade Hillbilly Jam is a welcome addition to the local color documentary genre.
Disclosure: First Run Features provided a complimentary screener of this film to 1More Film Blog.