In June 2011 Texas Monthly assembled a group of film aficionados to come up with a list of the best films ever made in or about Texas. And while I love The Last Picture Show, Tender Mercies, and No Country for Old Men, it bothered me that in the ground rules, documentaries were explicitly ruled out.
Texas is extraordinarily rich territory for stories worth documenting, so in an effort to give some love to these types of films, I’ve come up with my own list of the ten best documentaries made in our state. Not all of them are about subjects unique to Texas, and I gave deference to films clearly rooted here, with some diversity in representation by genre, region, and the time the films were made. And being documentaries, they’re, of course, all true.
In chronological order, here’s my list.
The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968)
A Well Spent Life (1971)
Chulas Fronteras (1976)
People talk about being moved by a film, but these three short films about Texas music may inspire you to actually get up and dance. The legendary documentarian Les Blank shot them forty years ago, preserving a piece of our state’s music history. His intimate portaits of bluesmen Lightin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb—as well as Tejano legend Lydia Mendoza and Flaco and Santiago Jimenez—capture the joy and spontaneity of making music.
The films are deceptively simple. People just talk about their lives and play music, a soundtrack laid over a view of rural life in East and South Texas in the sixties and seventies. Blank gives the viewer glimpses into the everyday lives of his characters, chronicling big events—river baptisms, wedding anniversaries, and local rodeos—and mundane activities like cooking BBQ or making tortillas and crude salsa (made by crushing peppers, tomatoes and onions together with the bottom of a beer bottle). Throw in scenes of killing snakes, pulling a rope tow auto barge across the Rio Grande by hand, cock fights, and picking grapefruit, and it’s clear Blank has documented a snapshot of rural Texas few outside of the ones living it will ever see.
Chulas Fronteras, which focuses on the Tejano music scene in South Texas, is part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, but all three films are national treasures, as are the musicians they profile. While watching A Well Spent Life, it’s easy to forget that Mance Lipscomb was not “discovered” until he was well into his sixties, and Lightin’ Hopkins, who recorded more blues albums than any other musician in his genre, is regularly listed among the best guitarists to ever live.
Beauty Knows No Pain (1972)
In 1971, Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt traveled from New York down to Kilgore, Texas, to make a film about the tryouts for the famed Kilgore Rangerettes, the original majorette drill team that had, at that time, been doing halftime shows at football games for three decades.
The film’s tone is a bit over the top—it begins with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing as the girls practice their drills in hair curlers—but Erwitt’s cinematic sense of symmetry is striking and a beautiful complement to his subject, as the girls stretch, drill, dance, and kick in a line.
Presiding over the tryouts is Miss Gussie Neil, the team’s founder and keeper of all Rangerette wisdom. Her commentary drives this short film, as do the barks and orders coming from this bee-hive-haired taskmaster who both praises and mercilessly critiques the wannabes (“get those wrinkles out of your leotards!”).
When the final choices are posted, the camera, strategically placed behind the bulletin board, zeroes in on the frenzied mob. Those picked scream for joy, while the rejected weep—one girl stands and stares, stunned and mute amidst the mayhem, before starting to walk away, then turning back, just in case she missed her number.
The chosen few join the perfectly-coiffed, perpetually-poised Rangerettes, dressed in the state colors—red blouses, short blue dresses, little white cowboy hats jauntily perched on the sides of their heads, and wide belts, all purposefully sized two inches smaller than their waists. It might hurt, but as Mrs. Neil reminds us, “beautiful girls never have any pain with anything that makes them beautiful.”
Marshall, Texas: Marshall, Texas (1983)
Few American journalists are as comfortable on screen as Bill Moyers. And it’s apparent he took great pleasure in taking the cameras with him to Marshall, his hometown in East Texas, a place, his father said, that has “more Baptists than people.
The lyrical way Moyers speaks, using a familiar and gentle accent, makes him the kind of person you’d want to have a long conversation with, and it’s clear that everyone in this film feels that way. Admittedly, this is an older style of documentary filmmaking, one where it was okay to just let folks talk. But it works because the interviewees are folksy and wise, and they have the same gift with words as Moyers.
They tell stories of moonshiners and civil war veterans; of the time when old and young could see eye-to-eye; and how the railroad tracks out of town pointed to the promise of a different, better life. Moyers also visits with the teachers who instilled a love of poetry in him, teachers who still remember him on his way to library, books under both arms. And the years drop from their faces as they laugh about Marshall’s movie theater, which offered either “shootin’ and killin’” films or “lovin’ and kissin’” ones, and where the sign outside simply read, “6 reels, 10 cents, nuff said.”
But Moyers takes care to not let his film become a nostalgic homage. He tells the story of a Marshall that had been two separate towns—one white, one black—just a few years before. The largest slave population in Texas left a legacy of small black colleges, whose students led the early civil rights protests in town. One of those former student smiles and recalls being hosed by fireman at