Hollywood Dreams

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.

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John F. Stacey