Rob Peoni originally chatted with The Ballad of Shovels and Rope director Jace Freeman when his documentary on the talented duo played in the Indy Film Fest. The movie will screen October 20-24 at the Heartland Film Fest, so Sky Blue Window is rerunning the profile on the Indy native's experience making the film.
When Indy Film Fest kicks off this evening, its lineup of acclaimed feature-length and short films will demonstrate the talents of independent moviemakers from near and far. The nearest being one of Indy's own -- director Jace Freeman. The festival will be a homecoming for him and his rock n' roll documentary The Ballad of Shovels and Rope.
"Coming home to the Indy Film Fest is a big deal for me as a filmmaker," Freeman says. "A lot of my support network is here, and I'm excited to show them what I've been up to for the last few years."
Freeman's documentary chronicles the husband and wife musical partnership of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent across two years of constant gigging and the home recording process of their breakthrough 2012 LP, O' Be Joyful. Viewers are inserted in the passenger seat of their touring van-turned mobile home and are provided a voyeuristic look at the couple's painstaking rise to stardom. The film garnered the "Ground Zero Tennessee Spirit Award for Best Feature" at Nashville Film Festival earlier this spring.
As a Nashville transplant, Freeman is inspired by his location in the heart of Music City. "Most of my friends are directly involved in the music industry," he says. "I even met and married an amazing singer-songwriter named Regan Lorraine. I was always interested in rock docs, but moving to Nashville gave me a unique perspective on what really goes on behind the scenes."
Freeman first became aware of Shovels & Rope a few years ago when a friend at a record label recommended Hearst's solo material. This initial interest led to an opportunity to shoot some live footage of Hearst and Trent on tour. It was love at first sight. "During that shoot in the fall of 2010, I met Michael and fell in love with his music too," he says. "Then I learned that they were going to form a band together as a husband and wife duo. I was swept away with their grace, humility and authenticity, and it got my gears turning about a bigger project.
Rather than wait and see whether Shovels & Rope gained traction nationally, Freeman got in on the ground level. "We made an investment of time and resources on a new band, but we had faith in Michael and Cary Ann as individuals," he says. "They had a track record of writing and recording incredible songs in their solo efforts. We definitely believed that something wonderful would happen when they combined their talents and energy into a focused project."
The film lets the voices of its protagonists carry the story, with no narrator or staged interviews. "Michael and Cary Ann opened up their house and lives to us, and we were always on the same page -- even if it involved them trusting our vision and creative direction," he says. "They are obviously storytellers too, so they understood what we were doing. The process unfolded naturally with respect, communication and trust."
Like most rock docs, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope relies heavily on music as a vehicle for the action on the screen. Rather than separate the songs and live footage into musical segments apart from the narrative, Freeman and his team at The Moving Picture Boys chose to weave the two together. "The story we ended up with is a little more universal," he says. "The best thing I've learned from our audiences so far is that they don't have to be a fan of the band or even the genre to like the film and connect with the story. Everybody seems to be responding strongly and emotionally to the film."
And he's right about that. The powerful documentary proves capable of stirring emotions. Late in the film, cameras are on hand in Hearst's childhood living room when she plays O' Be Joyful for her family for the first time. Eventual hit single "Birmingham" sets the tone for the scene. The astonishment of her family at the strength of Hearst and Trent's work is palpable and drove me to tears. "That's really nice work," Hearst's stepfather says. "Your voices blend so well together." With that recognition, any larger fame and success is almost irrelevant.
This weekend, Freeman will have a chance to bask in a bit of familial recognition as well. "Growing up in Indy let me put down some good roots that were nourished by family and friends," he says. "I've known some of my Indy friends since the second grade, and most of my family lives north of the city. Without their support and encouragement, I do not think it would have been possible for me to transition as easily into a filmmaking career."