Jerry McGill spurned a rock’n’roll career for a life of crime, robbing banks and running from the FBI while touring incognito with legends of country music and appearing in movies. After three jail sentences, aged 70 and suffering from terminal cancer, he announced his return to recording. Very Extremely Dangerous follows a heavily armed McGill and his long-suffering fiancée Joyce through four states as he stole whatever’s not nailed down and charmed his way into and out of trouble.
Film Ireland spoke to director Paul Duane to find out more about his compelling film and the “original rock and roll outlaw”.
Very Extremely Dangerous turns the camera on Jerry McGill, a pill-popping, crime addicted, gun-toting, rock’n’roll renegade. Not only did he not play by the rules, he burnt the rule book and urinated on its dying embers. Missing in action for the last decade, Paul Duane’s 2012 documentary follows McGill at the age of 70 as he attempts to return to recording music and perform his music to a live audience again.
McGill died earlier this year at the age of 73 leaving behind him a reputation as the “original rock and roll outlaw,” and described by Robert Gordon, the film’s producer, as “a really gruff charmer…If you didn’t like his sweet talk, he’d show you the muzzle of his gun.”
McGill was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who recorded for Sun Records, releasing one single in 1959, ‘Lovestruck’. Yet already by this stage in his life McGill had become a notorious criminal – claiming himself that he was arrested 97 times for various offences, including armed robbery.
Under the pseudonym Curtis Buck, McGill spent most of the ‘60s and ‘70s on the road – bringing crime with him – with country star Waylon Jennings, who described him as “crazy” and wrote that “While I was singing, he’d go find the girls, and if we needed drugs, he’d go find the dope.”
By the late ’70s McGill had disappeared from the music radar, spending most of his time being arrested, tried, and occasionally convicted, for crimes that included possession of illegal weapons, drugs and attempted murder.
Duane’s interest in making the film that would become Very Extremely Dangerous began when he received an email saying that McGill had surfaced after a ten-year vanishing act, was suffering from terminal cancer and wanted to make a return to recording. At that stage, “I’d really only 2 sources to go on,” recalls Duane, ” one was Robert Gordon’s book It Came from Memphis, which had quite a lot of stories and legendary stuff about McGill, stories told by people who had known him in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the early ‘70s. The other was the William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton, which has scenes of McGill that turn up in Very Extremely Dangerous where you can see what sort of a person he was. It was all second or third hand information.”
Duane made contact with McGill in Alabama and was one of the first people to speak to him for a while. “Jerry hadn’t spoken to any of the Memphis heads who knew him way back. So I sort of tracked him down. That was a strange feeling. Nobody else had heard from him in many, many years. From there we had a couple of long conversations on the phone.”
Armed with little ammunition, Duane headed over to meet McGill. “It could have been a wild goose chase – it was a big risk to go to the USA never having met this guy and start filming and then see if it was something worth chasing further.”
After watching the film it certainly was worth it. Maybe not quite what was first imagined though. Duane recalls how originally he had “certain aspirations. I enjoyed The Story of Anvil very much and liked the notion of maybe someone missing their opportunity to become a star and having a second go at it With his undeniable charisma and openness on camera plus the added pathos that he was under a death sentence from cancer there seemed to me to be the ingredients there for what could really be a redemptive, positive and funny, sweet story of this guy rediscovering his musical abilities after 50 years of living a very, very difficult and dangerous and illegal kind of life. That was our initial idea. That was how we pitched it to ourselves – but it didn’t quite work out that way. “
As the film testifies to, McGill was not an easy subject to engage with. His erratic behaviour and drug addiction gave rise to abusive behaviour and threats of violence toward his fiancée, Joyce. McGill’s on-screen behaviour proved so problematic that Duane was forced to end proceedings when things came to a head. Duane admits reaching that stage during filming when “two things became clear to me – no audience would stay with our story beyond the point we’d reached, Jerry’s behaviour had crossed a line; and I wasn’t willing to go with him on this journey for another step.”
McGill’s sometime producer and song-writing collaborator Jim Lancaster has said about him that “He was an outlaw down to his soul.” What’s interesting about the documentary is how much this outlaw seems to be a constructed image that McGill plays up to. Duane admits that McGill was indeed charismatic but “clearly unreliable and can be problematic to be around. Part of the reason Jerry was excited about the film was that he always wanted to be a star. Point a camera at him and he starts to perform.”
Welcome to “Jerryworld”.
“When you’re entangled with someone who is playing a game and how far they can go and being goaded on by the presence of the camera to do more and more, you wonder whether the principle of observing this person is making them do the things they’re doing and maybe if we stopped observing him he’d have a more normal life and wouldn’t damage himself and other people. Also there’s the fear of ethically being in some way responsible for his behaviour. And also the fact that I personally couldn’t take it anymore – at a certain point as a human being you just go I can’t be involved in this any longer. And also as documentary filmmaker one of the most difficult things, one of the most indefinable things you have to have – no one can teach you – is knowing when you’ve reached the end of your story. When you’ve filmed the scene you know is the end – that’s when you walk away.”
Very Extremely Dangerous is not about being judge, jury and executioner. It’s a film that asks more questions than it answers, perhaps the most important being how do you decide about a person. Asking Duane about looking back now on the whole experience, he’s quick to focus on the positive. “My best memory of Jerry, and the one I want to hang onto, is the last time I saw him when he came to Memphis. We had a sneak preview of the film – the film’s first screening – and he travelled to see it. We had agreed it see it before anyone else. We sat in a hotel room and watched it – by this stage he was off his painkiller addiction and was living a much more moderate life – he was shocked and horrified by what he saw but he was able to take it on the chin and say, ‘Look it’s an honest portrayal of how I was at that time. It’s difficult to watch but thank you for doing it.’ He sat through it again with an audience that evening and it must have been very, very difficult for him to sit there in a room full of people while you’re threatening to break your girlfriend’s jaw on screen. But he sat through it and came out the other side and people applauded him at the end, which was maybe a surprise to him because I think they understood that even just by being there showed a certain amount of moral courage and I was very proud of him. Proud of the way he responded; proud of the way he didn’t shirk or blame or attempt to evade responsibility for his actions. That’s the mark of a real man – at that point he showed himself to be a grown-up and much more so than I’d ever seen from him in any of his behaviour before then. That was the real Jerry – his fiancée Joyce always makes the distinction between Jerry McGill and Curtis Buck – Jerry being his alter ego and the guy who is the devil incarnate and Jerry, who is genuinely a sweet, nice, loving, kind, creative guy. Thankfully I got to know both of them before he died. It’s a real shame he went the wrong way and became a criminal because he had all the positivity to be pretty much anything he wanted to be. He has a lot of positives and a lot of negatives and they’re all there to see on the screen in the film.”
Very Extremely Dangerous is in cinemas now.