By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Allie Conti
By Chris Joseph
By Kyle Swenson
Outside on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach all is bustle and conviviality, but inside the Alliance Cinema it's silent and anticipatory. Three people and a turtle have gathered here for the first private screening of a movie. The rough-cut video is longer than feature length, and the tiny audience knows it has nearly two and a half hours of viewing ahead. Billed as both a "documentary" and a "fantasy," this seeming contradiction in terms is the autobiographical work of a first-time amateur filmmaker from Hollywood -- not the film capital in California but the beach town in Broward County. This is to be nothing less than his life story.
The tape rolls and the turtle watches itself open the film, a walk-on symbol of undetermined meaning. In short order a more meaningful premise is established. This is the tale of a struggling musician who has been repeatedly rejected by the record industry for years. Inspired by the movie Tootsie, in which a frustrated actor played by Dustin Hoffman impersonates a woman in order to become a soap opera star, the musician plans and executes a ridiculous media hoax in which he successfully passes himself off as the unknown son of a dead rock idol. The episode, however, earns him only minor notoriety and little fame, and in this movie's dramatic climax, the troubled artist videotapes his own suicide. Apparently the dead man left a farewell note with instructions on how to edit this blood-soaked exit into miles of other footage he had been shooting over the years to document his career. The final result of this posthumous request now flickers on the screen, entitled Jimmy's Story.
One member of the audience is stunned, not sure if this is for real. He doesn't know if it's a bizarre monument to one man's massive ego or a confessional tour de force by a raw new talent snuffed in its cradle, whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. So much of the film seems staged and contrived, one can only wonder at the ratio of "documentary" to "fantasy." Ostensibly a movie about a hoax, is the movie itself a hoax?
The perplexed viewer can only watch, like the turtle poking its head out of the purse on the lap of the girl sitting next to him. On the screen, friends of the dead musician/filmmaker give heartfelt testimony to the genius of this deceased artist. Two seats down, Billy Yeager, the man being mourned, grins in the darkened theater, very much alive.
That a local musician such as Yeager was able to turn a life of artistic struggle into a visual story is unique enough. That anyone without prior film experience could have actually transformed 100 hours of raw footage and 20 years of personal history into a finished, more-than-full-length film is a testament to perseverance.
Jimmy's Story also represents the first such feature ever completed at the Alliance Film/Video Co-op, the public-access media center opened by the Alliance for Media Arts in 1993 to provide production and postproduction facilities to independent South Florida artists working outside the mainstream.
Some artists reject the mainstream. Others seek it and, like Yeager, are continuously rejected by it. "Billy was highly motivated," says Co-op Manager Geraldine Smythe. "He finished his film against all odds."
Obstacles in his creative path are nothing new to Yeager. His thwarted quest for a major-label recording contract is the underlying theme of his movie. A litany of fruitless meetings and rejection letters almost celebrates failure as a means of self-discovery. It is a tale that anyone who's ever had his dreams dashed can relate to. "Every musician in America should see this film," says Faust Pierfederici, who edited the movie and characterizes it as Wayne's World meets Spinal Tap.
But how Yeager acted out his frustration is what separates him from your average starving artist. There are publicity stunts and then there are publicity stunts, but few would have dared, let alone thought, to pretend to be one Jimmy Story, the forgotten son of dead rock legend Jimi Hendrix. This is the hoax Yeager successfully pulled on weekly XS magazine (now called City Link) and WSVN-TV (Channel 7) in 1996, when both media outlets bought into the elaborate deception with fully credulous coverage and headline treatment.
Jimmy's Story could have been a concise one-hour documentary about that well-planned yet comically executed ruse. As a movie attempting to be about so much more than that, it needs all the length and breadth it can muster. In the words of the Cultural Development Group, which underwrote its final production, the film is "epic in scale."
Aaron Morris founded the Cultural Development Group in 1986 to assist the arts community of South Florida with everything from consultation to funding. He sees Yeager's movie as being about "the conflicts of an aging wannabe rock star who at the age of 40 turns to filmmaking to show not only the trials and tribulations of the journey but the triviality of the whole idea of becoming 'somebody', of being a star." Morris is now actively promoting Jimmy's Story, submitting it to independent film festivals like Sundance as a "documentary-style film" with "embellishments of cinematic license." One assumes this means things like committing suicide on camera.
"I was always told that you had to have a look, a gimmick," says Yeager, searching for the possible origins of such dramatic gestures. His fixation with image is self-evident in a scene from his movie, where an endless scroll of old eight-by-tens reveal a textbook example of how not to be a rock star by desperately trying to look like one. Windswept and hirsute, Yeager's well-shaped pecs overwhelm many a shot. But now, lounging on the porch of his weathered efficiency just off the beachside boardwalk in Hollywood, his muscles are merely the tanned tone of a surfer's build. Here his "look" is perfectly natural. The blond coif in the glossy photos may have turned to graying straw, but image hardly matters any more to Billy Yeager. Having tried to look like someone else for so long, he's willing to look like himself these days. Making a movie about your life may give one that kind of perspective.
It was music that infected Yeager early on -- he began playing guitar at age six -- but the look wasn't far behind. His were the usual garage-band dreams of the Sixties, to become a rock and roll superstar. When his hair wasn't long enough, he donned a wig. When he needed a fuzz box for his guitar, he actually made one out of a toaster.
Living the wild youth of that time, which included some minor crimes and running away from home, he soon settled down enough to pursue the life of a working musician. In the hothouse club scene along A1A in the late Seventies, that often meant scratching funk chords in a disco band. It also meant garish, sequined stage outfits and platform shoes. Yeager even played in a touring version of Wild Cherry, of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" fame.
One influence on the budding performer's stage persona was local legend Wayne Cochran, the blue-eyed soulman known for his club-trashing showmanship. Soon Yeager was a bar-walking guitar-smasher in his own right, willing to grab the spotlight by any means possible. "I had to attract attention," explains Yeager simply.
The Eighties ushered in the MTV era and it was the perfect time for a revamped pursuit of dreams of stardom. Yeager chased his with a vengeance, accumulating experience and lots of videotape of himself. By 1984 he had two self-released albums of original songs to his credit. Hopes for a major-label contract were met with a mound of rejection letters. In his movie Yeager lays these out evenly spaced on the ground: They take up his whole yard.
In 1990 well-known recording artist Bruce Hornsby liked one of Yeager's tapes enough to help him land a chance to record a demo for Capitol Records, but the label passed on the results. While it would seem to those watching his movie that Yeager should have become inured to rejection over the years and maybe even to expect it, the scene of him receiving this particular letter makes his disappointment palpable.
Yeager's life story at this point is no different than that of any other struggling artist who has suffered rejection. All can recite identical tales, and not one could sustain full-length "documentary" treatment. But Yeager is no common artist, and his quest for fame no common struggle. He had latched on to the dream of stardom as blindly and instinctually as a pit bull to a postman's leg. In his movie, quotations from Scripture in voice-over frame this personal journey of trying to "make it" in biblical proportions akin to Job or Moses in the desert. This quixotic self-conceived struggle is what led to the creation of Jimmy Story.
To any reasoned observer, Yeager's physical portrayal of Hendrix's imagined progeny seems too patently absurd ever to have been taken seriously. In the film no expensive stage makeup was used to hide Yeager's chiseled, almost Aryan, features, just a bathtub full of dye and occasional blasts of spray paint. The crudely applied makeup seems a different color in every shot of the film, none approaching authentic skin tone. Yeager's forays into public as Jimmy Story -- draped in cliched rock-star clothing and topped off with long, fake hair -- did nothing but drop jaws and give old ladies pause. He didn't even look human, let alone black.
For his XS magazine photo shoot, Yeager compounded the irony by wearing a specially created outfit festooned with the publication's logo, shoving a banana down his pants for crotch-bulging effect. He went even further with his Channel 7 appearance, painting his face white like a mime's as Jimmy's way of protesting the media's fixation with image. It is truly amazing that, of all the things Yeager asks the movie viewer to believe actually happened, the thing that really did happen is the most unbelievable.
But it was not blackface or a cheap wig that garnered a cover story in XS magazine and the lead on Channel 7. It was Yeager's amazing wealth of "evidence" proving Jimmy Story's origins.
Watching the movie we follow Yeager's year-long effort to meticulously fabricate a slew of artifacts confirming his elaborate back-story of the forgotten son. The premise was simple enough: A drug-addled groupie named Sunshine Story meets Hendrix at a Florida nightclub, gets herself impregnated by him, and bears the child while choosing to withhold this knowledge of parentage from her son. One night young Jimmy Story is visited by Hendrix in a dream, and eventual queries to his mother reveal the truth. She gives Story a locked box, and in it is Jimmy's birth certificate, signed by none other than Jimi Hendrix.
But such bogus documents were the least of it. Sitting in his apartment, next to a gurgling fish tank full of piranhas, Yeager now recalls the hard work of constructing a myth and the serendipitous moments that seemed to bless his efforts.
"Stuff just dropped out of the sky," he relates. During a chance meeting, a friend he hadn't seen in 25 years gave Yeager a photo taken of Hendrix at Pirates World, the now long-gone concert venue and amusement park in Hollywood that is a touchstone of rock and roll memories for many South Florida baby boomers. An unpublished picture that no Hendrix-phile would be able to identify, it was manipulated via computer to have the rock star wearing a shirt included in Jimmy Story's inheritance.
Integral to the thrust of the hoax were the "Bolero Tapes," the supposed last recordings of the great guitar innovator. These were completed by Jimmy Story the musician and became the character's own motivation for surfacing. Yeager's guitar work and impersonation of Hendrix's voice on these tapes are not entirely convincing, but, by uncorking the genie of a dead rock-star legend with all its weighty iconographic baggage, even a DNA test could not have swayed the minds of those willing to believe.
Upon this scenario Yeager piled even more obscure ephemera, invoking murderous conspiracies, song lyrics, and numerological formulae that had Hendrix predicting the date of his own death. Unfolding in Jimmy's Story, it is a mind-numbing maze of detail. One gets the impression that the hoodwinked media outlets simply ran their stories rather than deal with confirming this impenetrable mountain of "proof."
In their petulant follow-up article admitting they had been duped, XS magazine could only point to it all and sheepishly admit this stuff had fooled them. "We simply didn't take into account the possibility that an embittered musician would manipulate us to vent his hostilities," wrote an editor of the magazine.
As rendered in the film, the hoax ranged even wider than local media. Hendrix experts the world over are taken in, bags of mail arrive with offers of contracts and tours. Is this fantasy? By now it should be clear that any assertion of fact in the self-documentation of this trickster is suspect.
Perhaps somewhere within Jimmy's Story is a short functional film on this hoax that could probably say a lot about the semiotics of pop culture, media artifice, the illusion of stardom, and countless other ironic insights. This is the movie many suggested the budding filmmaker make. But Yeager's movie was never intended to be just about the Jimmy Story incident. It is about Billy Yeager, in whose life story Jimmy Story is but a chapter.
For anyone who has actually been paying attention to Yeager over the years, his son-of-Hendrix hoax comes as no surprise. "When I do things, they're groomed and grand," Yeager told XS by way of explaining his actions and possibly dropping a hint.
Back when the now-reflective filmmaker had just begun chasing rock-star dreams, Yeager was thoroughly convinced that attracting attention to his music required elaborate hype and staged events. To promote the release of his first album back in the Eighties, Yeager set out in his usual fashion to create a hubbub. First he fabricated a portfolio of himself as an Australian fashion model, then created a bogus Calvin Klein television commercial of which he was the glamorous focus. With that he convinced a video company to work free and film him being mobbed by beautiful women (all shills, who were themselves hoaxed into believing they would be on MTV) as he tooled along Fort Lauderdale beach in a limo, with banner planes toting his name across the sky above. His friends were enlisted to pose as bodyguards, band members, managers, and fans. Yeager himself has a hard time recounting exactly what went on and why, so convoluted was the prank.
Laughing, he recalls one detail. "It got rained out the first time we tried it. I had like fifteen minutes to figure a way to get the video guys to hang around town until the next weekend." One phone call later, Yeager had convinced the owners of a strip club that a major rock star (Billy Yeager, as played by Billy Yeager) and a film crew would be arriving to audition dancers for his "American Girls" video. Soon the whole entourage was being wined and dined as naked women vied for the camera's attention and a chance for fame. The crew told Yeager they'd stay another week. Once again his inspired improvisations paid off, and the following weekend he would have even more girls surrounding him in his effort to become famous.
And what did all this hoopla do for the album? Emblematic of the Yeager way, he couldn't yet afford to actually press the thing, so it was empty LP covers he autographed for the simulated multitudes.
When one considers this episode -- along with the time he impersonated David Bowie and actually performed a series of fake concerts in some small Florida towns -- one has to wonder what Yeager hoped to accomplish with all this. As displayed in the documentary that also admits to being fantasy, there's always the possibility that some, if not all, may have never happened at all. What do these deliberate hoaxes, of which Jimmy Story or even Jimmy's Story is the penultimate, have to do with his music? "I always thought it was about more than the music," he is willing to concede.
By any standard Yeager is a proficient musician. After all, his song writing is original enough to have attracted the attention of Bruce Hornsby. His early independent releases were serviceable efforts of their time and nothing to be ashamed of. Even the bogus "Bolero Tapes," for all their Hendrixian affectations, reveal Yeager's unique compositional vision, if not a funky swing that could have been bred only on the streets of South Florida.
As heard anew in film, his voice is a malleable instrument, by turns raw and sweet. In general his work suffers all the pitfalls befuddling the self-produced. But Yeager's guitar gently weeps, and it squeals and it roars, always lyric, always saying something. It may not be perfect, but people have gotten signed on much worse. Listen to the radio sometime. The Darwinian attrition of demos submitted to record labels is severe. Very rarely is a song ever listened to in its entirety. With no second chances, this is a very fragile moment upon which to hang one's hopes.
Yeager describes one such session he attended back in his demo-pushing days: "The guy had the volume so low he couldn't even hear it, and the whole time he talked about how they wanted to sign rap and grunge acts."
Yeager's only inside supporter to date, Bruce Hornsby, suffered similar rejection for years until the demo of his noncommercial-sounding song "The Way It Is" was accidentally heard and recognized as a hit. Success stories like these fuel the dreams of those who would be stars, but Yeager's determination comes from something more.
The do-it-yourself quest for fame is a genetic predisposition for Yeager. His father Ray built a guitar out of a dresser drawer and wrote a song about it called "Country Boy" that was almost a minor hit in the Fifties. Columbia offered him a deal, but Ray Yeager claims he had become entangled with twelve different managers by then. Closer to a deal than his son would ever get, he couldn't sign on the dotted line, and this opportunity passed. Even after settling down into a career of law enforcement in Dania Beach and raising a family, the senior Yeager kept at his dream, promoting himself as "The Singing Cop."
Of no less importance to Billy Yeager's approach is his aunt, Bunny Yeager, well known the world over as the former Playboy model who got behind the camera and reinvented the cheesecake ethic of the Fifties. She brought to the male-dominated viewpoint a feminine perspective that included designing her own swimsuits; crafting exotic, nature-infused settings; and discovering pin-up queen and kitsch bondage icon Betty Page.
The family influence on Yeager is revealed in the film in quick, subtle ways. He learns to play on his dad's bulky homemade instrument but hungers for an electric. When the new instrument is secured, Yeager puts away the guitar made out of a dresser drawer only to plug in to a homemade amp he built out of his sister's dresser.
Where Yeager's determined desire to control every aspect of his image might come from is evidenced by the act that Bunny insisted on shooting and directing her own appearance in her nephew's film, much to the chagrin of her nephew. Her posed shots, complete with potted palms, are precious.
In the movie's most poignant scene, Billy jams with his father as both pickers work out on their respective guitars. The elder Yeager, who claims he never worked as hard at his music as his son does, croaks through a hole in his larynx. "I always had a good voice" he says, by way of explaining his rapid but fleeting arc toward fame. A victim of throat cancer, Ray entreats viewers to quit smoking. Moments like these undercut any of the film's overwrought contrivances.
Once, when young Billy accompanied his dad to a meeting about a potential record deal as a country artist, he was amazed how Ray suddenly adopted a hillbilly drawl and bumbling demeanor. It isn't hard to see where the younger Yeager might have picked up his penchant for affecting voices, for impersonating his own manager on the phone, for all the compulsive artifice that has overshadowed his music for so long.
Billy Yeager greeted 1996 with a successful media hoax to his credit and not much else. He pushed a broom for several hours each day in Boca, and that paid the rent, but whither his quest for fame? As always, he labored creatively in his funky apartment, the place where he had hatched so many schemes. Having long since forsaken the grind of playing in bands at clubs as "boring," even his self-contained music making had mellowed, his songs becoming melancholy and reflective. The beach boy was aging and the mileage showed.
One thing was certain: He had been the son of Jimi Hendrix for a fleeting moment. It was a character Yeager understood, and he wrote a dramatic screenplay about such a fictional son, the story of Jimmy Story if Jimmy Story had really existed. He had hours of video footage covering every minute and aspect of the hoax and used it to help pitch this movie concept to anyone who'd listen.
"But every time I'd show somebody this stuff, no one would let me fast-forward. They'd want to watch every minute of it," Yeager marvels. It seemed he already had a movie.
The screenplay idea was shelved, but a documentary just about the Jimmy Story scam wouldn't be enough. Already extant were hours of footage documenting his life going back two decades, and he was still shooting video every day. Suddenly a new goal had presented itself: to fashion a film about an artist's struggle. "Jimmy's Story" evolved into the story of Yeager.
He dove, headfirst of course, into the task of becoming an independent filmmaker. Here was a new windmill worth tilting at. Yeager devoured magazines like Independent Film & Video, perused The Hollywood Reporter. The independent film market was burgeoning, and it was a Yeager-friendly, do-it-yourself scene, with plenty of low-budget, by-hook-or-by-crook success stories and mini-masterpieces. She's Gotta Have It, Roger and Me, Hoop Dreams, why not Jimmy's Story? Independent-film events like Robert Redford's Sundance Festival were providing instant breakthroughs for new talent, and submitting his film for consideration in 1997 became Yeager's resolute objective.
Compiling names and numbers as he had so many times before, standing in an L.A. phone booth pretending to be his own manager and wrangling meetings, Yeager apparently had a whole new slew of front offices to hector. Well armed for such battles, he had matured. Surely no more mailing of animal parts, as he once did to IRS Records in a fit of pique. No more fake managers, because independent filmmakers mostly managed themselves. He had learned something about fame, and rather than grasp at it, he stayed patiently motivated by a vision that sought to deflate it, his film-to-be.
The feedback flowed. Yeager says several people were intrigued by his rough, VCR edits, but few were willing to finance the project or tackle the raw footage and unformed story. Months of work, twice as much time as Yeager had allowed for, were projected, five-figure minimum budgets proposed. Outside help would be needed. Yeager knew nothing of the film-editing craft, and he certainly didn't have the equipment to do it on his own.
Eventually Yeager says he talked with John Pierson, the man who helped kick-start the careers of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and the makers of Hoop Dreams. Pierson liked the footage and felt it could be good for his TV show on Bravo's Independent Film Channel. Yeager pitched his whole life story, but Pierson was only interested in a Jimmy Story short.
Yeager preferred, of course, his own vision for the film. As he tells it, the major player snickered his best wishes to the neophyte, warning that it would take a lot longer than he thought to wrestle this movie to the ground.
Urgently groping around for backers, Yeager customized videotapes and production proposals to feature specific names of potential financiers with their own "executive producer" credits. Targeted were every local entrepreneur, impresario, club owner, and high-profile personality he could think of. "Not a single one responded, not even to say no," states Yeager.
Trying to break into this new scene, he had been talking to local filmmakers like Elliot Mercelli, who suggested Yeager visit the Alliance for Media Arts.
The Alliance was formed in 1985 to promote avant-garde and independent film and video in South Florida. Mounting various programs and screenings at the Dade County Public Library, the Alliance eventually secured its own permanent space on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach in 1990. Featuring offices and an art gallery, its essential fixture was the Alliance Cinema, a 79-seat theater offering 35 mm, 16 mm, and video projection, all in Dolby stereo. A number of successful film showings featuring the work of local, national, and international filmmakers would be hosted here. Representing a consistent program of avant-garde and less-than-overtly-commercial "art" films, the theater's attendance often numbered more than 1000 patrons a week.
The Alliance Video/Film Co-op is perhaps the association's most important contribution to the South Florida creative community. Tucked away off the Lincoln Road mall, it is a humming little artists colony, its tiny cubicles filled with the abstract visions of earnest creators. It was the perfect place for cultivating a beginner like Yeager, even if his goals were less avant-garde and more immediate then the Co-op's usual membership.
So close to realizing his newfound destiny as a filmmaker, Yeager still had quite a way to go. Even if the Co-op's services were low-cost, he still lacked financial backing. All his source material, ranging from old 8 mm home movies to his amateur video verite, would have to be converted to digital code for nonlinear editing. Clueless about the process, he needed to find an editor, one willing to grapple with his mountain of footage at a breakneck pace in order for him to meet the Sundance deadline less than a month away. If he were to find such a person, the Co-op's Media 100 editing machine that he needed in short order was temporarily broken, another obstacle that seemed insurmountable. "I almost got discouraged," he admits.
But as so often happened to Yeager when his sheer force of will was not enough to alter mundane reality to his own ends, fate stepped in. On one fortuitous day, the same day the Media 100 came back on line, Billy met the people who would help him complete his movie.
Aaron Morris has long been a supporter of the arts and was instrumental in establishing such institutions as the Miami Film Festival and the Miami Book Fair International. And he's known Bunny Yeager for twenty years. So when he received a fax she sent about her nephew's film, he decided to take a meeting with Billy.
With his trusty bag of clippings and notes spread out on a restaurant table, Yeager made his pitch. Morris and others in attendance were "fascinated." It seemed so over the top, yet if Yeager actually possessed the footage he described, he had a story to tell.
"I'm a trusting person, and Billy seemed to be very honest," says Morris, displaying a faith that those more familiar with Yeager's tricks might have withheld. The Cultural Development Group, along with Aunt Bunny, agreed to kick in a few thousand dollars and help him get his film done.
Next he met Faust Pierfederici, an independent filmmaker experienced at working with beginners. He was willing to entertain the daunting prospect of making a movie out of Yeager's footage. "At first I thought it would not be possible," says Pierfederici, "but Billy was very organized." He went over Yeager's notes and looked at some of the footage, and mainly gauged Yeager's motivation. By Pierfederici's exacting yardstick, the beginner had what it took.
Now all the pieces were in place. Deadline for submissions to Sundance was fifteen days away. Pierfederici and his fellow editor and wife, Justine, entered Yeager's world. Spending twelve-hour days in the cramped editing suite, the couple treated the task with utmost seriousness and helped the crazy musician focus on reaching his goal.
The story was being formed as it went along and still being shot as they cut it together. Yeager was shooting 16 mm music segments, and the inexperienced filmmaker wasn't even sure if the unfamiliar camera was working. He could only hope he had usable shots by the end of the day. To some degree, he did.
Driving their well-traveled route between Hollywood and Miami Beach, Yeager dictated each day's editing notes to his girlfriend, Maria, the woman behind the man and often behind the camera. She could only scribble down the cryptic code he barked at her, the directions only he would understand when the time came. He played and replayed the movie in his mind, cutting it in his head. Like all his mad schemes, his recording sessions and his gimmicks, Yeager was flying by the seat of his pants, improvising each riff upon the next. "It's scary. You have to be trusting, but not trusting, ya know?" he asks, actually defining what it means to be in the moment. Zen and the art of filmmaking, Yeager-style.
His style was also precipitating a creative crisis. He figured there was only one way for his character to surpass the Jimmy Story hoax and resolve his failure: suicide. Yeager was planning to construe the whole film as a hoax unto itself. He would end the film with his own videotaped suicide and attendant confirming documents. The idea was that his sign-off note had included instructions on how to edit this final testament to his tragic life and times.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the rough-cut. Yeager had been discovering things about himself while learning to make a film, realizing what his life was really all about as it revealed itself to him on the editing screen. Watching the film take shape, making editorial decisions on the fly, exhausted and caffeine-frazzled, he arrived at a moment not unlike Coppola did with Apocalypse Now, totally stuck on how to end the damn thing. To conclude in tragedy would make Billy Yeager's whole life tragic.
Yeager's character does indeed kill himself in his movie. The less charitable may wonder why he didn't do it years earlier, as the continuous rejection he's suffered would have been reason enough among more sensitive souls for suicide. But Jimmy's Story doesn't end there. The film may be overlong, by turns glacial and rapid-fire in pace, but it is always beguiling. Yeager says his final product is "a story of hope."
Whereas Yeager could be perceived from his past stunts as a megalomaniac, a one-man band unwilling to share the stage or studio with others, his autobiographical film reveals someone quite different. A certifiable character, true, but one able to get over himself. And the wacky adventure of his life is no solo album but a collaboration featuring an orchestra of loving friends.
Yeager's old Hollywood pals are a chorus extolling his virtues and recounting his infamous deeds throughout the film. Often drafted to play roles in his schemes, theirs are eyewitness accounts. They may have been thoroughly directed in their commentary, but no film artifice could fabricate their genuine affection for Yeager. Balding boomers clad in Dockers and often wearing ties, their proximity to the daring Yeager shows how they are still beach bums at heart, glad to have their friend still around to remind them that some dreams of youth never fade. In the scenes where they discuss Yeager's death, they actually rise to the level of becoming actors.
Perhaps the most compelling figure to emerge in the saga is Yeager's girlfriend, Maria, who doesn't enter the film until the third act. An oliveskinned Hispanic woman, she confronts the camera with a penetrating gaze and a serenity that belies any characterization of long suffering.
Often behind the camera recording the antics of her man, on-screen she is Yeager's constant foil. Through her incredulous open-mouthed reactions and double takes, Maria serves as a barometer of normalcy, tempering but never hindering Yeager's flights of fancy.
Maria is the star of the film's most amusing moments, scenes far removed from the overarching issues of fame and stardom that would seem the purview of Jimmy's Story. It's her turtle crawling at the edges of shots. Her obvious devotion to Yeager turns the movie at one level into a love story.
The maturation of Yeager's music is another revelation of the film. His grooves comprise a vital score, always supporting the often-obscured fact that he does indeed have a sound he's been trying to get people to listen to for all these years. Vignettes shot in black-and-white 16 mm illustrating songs like "Train of Pearls," "Little Buggy," and "The Last Wave" would not look or sound out of place on MTV.
Only the director's cut is extant as of this writing, and major tightening is planned. The support of the Alliance for Media Arts, Aaron Morris, and the Cultural Development Group implies it has potential. It has been submitted to the Sundance Festival, whose response is expected December 1. Those who think Yeager is just a nut will probably remain discursive and mock his efforts.
Believers to the left, naysayers to the right, all just par for the course to Billy Yeager. He has completed a goal, one that gives closure to so many missed goals of the past. Few artists are lucky enough to arrive at such a juncture.
Maybe one shouldn't ascribe luck to someone who has been so unlucky. Buried in the liner notes of Yeager's self-released album from 1982, there is a cryptic reference to Jimmy Story. It could mean Yeager had the idea for the son-of-Hendrix scam that long ago. He may have been consciously filming the story of his life all this time. Did he really know what the hell he was doing? "I knew, but I didn't know," he says.
Billy Yeager is for real, and he doesn't need to prove that any more by staging a hoax. But he can't help himself, insisting he will indeed promote the film as a posthumous document finished by a suicide note from a dead artist, even though he gives up that ruse before the end of the movie. Seems like it will be hard to float that one for very long. But in case someone wonders: Billy Yeager is not dead. His film, so full of life, is proof of that.