I can say without any sense of irony that The Dancing Outlaw, the story of Jesco White of Boone County West Virginia, is the best use of public money since the Manhattan Project. Made in 1991 for West Virginia public television by the either extremely talented or extremely lucky Jacob Young, Dancing Outlaw manages in its 29-minute running time to be more enjoyable than almost any other film you will ever seen. Something of a true cult classic, I myself am part of the Yahoo! Groups Jesco White Fan Club. I have been since 1998. I actually first saw Dancing Oulaw back in 1994 but it was a crummy, fifth-generation VHS tape. Incipiently, this is how 90% of Jesco White fans first viewed their hero. The folks at www.dancingoutlaw.com were gracious enough to send Ruthless a copy of the brand new Dancing Outlaw DVD, which not only includes the bonafide documentary, but the Director’s Cut, deleted scenes and Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood. But, we are here primarily to talk about the original, the one and only, the amazing, and yes folks, the God damn miraculous Dancing Outlaw.
From over a decade spent trying to hip people to the ways of the last Mountain Dancer, let me tell you from experience that describing Dancing Outlaw is simply impossible. You have to see it for yourself. That said, I can break down some of the basics even if the allure does not come across properly in my writing. But let me put it this way real fast; Dancing Outlaw is rated at 8.4 stars on IMDB.com. So is Chinatown. Jesco White is the last in a line of Mountain Dancers, a relatively obscure form of tap-dancing that is actually interesting to watch. His father, D. Ray White (who was murdered in front of Jesco), was a provincial celebrity of sorts. He’s the one who taught Jesco to mountain dance. What I liked is that unlike most of the yawn-inducing tap dancing I’ve witnessed, Jesco almost always taps to music, be it Southern-fried rock, bluegrass or both. Jesco is married to Norma Jean, a woman who is probably twenty-years older than him, but appears to be forty-years his senior. Short, fat, gunted and sporting something of a beehive hairdo, I’m sorry to say this Jesco, but Norma Jean is not an attractive woman. However, it is through Norma Jean that we learn the truth about Jesco. Turns out that Jesco is actually three different people.
- Jesse — The sweetest man alive
- Jesco — “The devil in himself.” A nasty, mean-spirited, wife beating son-of-a-bitch.
- Elvis — No, really. At times, Jesco becomes motherfucking Elvis.
I should probably mention here that that Jesco first went to juvenile hall for stealing lighter fluid to sniff. Much has been made about the fact that Jesco would get his “Super-Double Buzz” on through a combination of huffing gasoline, paint and lighter fluid, the latter of which he squirted into a sock and then sniffed as he walked around. However, it was Elvis, both the man and the schizophrenic alter ego that “saved” Jesco. Truthfully, Jesco’s Elvis personality is the least interesting thing about him. Still, the raw honesty–totally devoid of the notion of camp or kitsch–of Jesco’s Elvis fascination is touching. Especially the fact that his and Norma Jean’s bedroom also doubles as a recording studio where “Elvis” spends countless hours making recordings of himself singing along with the King. And of course, “Elvis” punishes “Priscilla” by refusing to “make love to her” when she misbehaves. Also of note, is that Jesco met Norma Jean when she picked him up hitchhiking with some friends. He was planning to steal her car and sell it for glue money, but luckily he happened to fall in love with her before the robbery could take place.
Like many great documentaries, the “interesting” actions of the protagonist are greatly bolstered by the quirks of the surrounding cast. Crumb is a perfect example of this, for when we finally meet Robert’s family, we see that he is comparatively quite normal and has developed rather impressive coping skills. Jesco isn’t much different. First of all, the crushing poverty of Boone County is staggering and hard to believe. Most people, if dropped into the “hollers” where Jesco and friends live, wouldn’t recognize it as being part of America. Honestly, the squalor of Boone County is heartbreaking. Seemingly nothing but rusted out trailers, dilapidated homes on blocks, more cars-on-lawns per square mile than any place on earth, and West Virginians (and yes, the homes are on blocks. The cars are just rusted hulks). What chance did Jesco have? Even more amazing/shocking is Jesco’s family. We first meet Jesco’s mother who doesn’t seem that bad, until you realized that she birthed not only Jesco, but his hell-spawn siblings. Next is Jesco’s brother Dorsey who not only has a mullet and a truckers cap a full decade before they became trendy, but he talks almost exactly like Boomhauer from King of the Hill–a fascinating half-English dialect at any rate. Doresey is missing an eye because the guy that killed his father, D. Ray, also shot Dorsey in the face. Interestingly, Jesco got shot in the neck during the same fracas.
And then we meet Jesco’s sister… Let me back up. Just before we meet Jesco’s family we learn from Norma Jean that Jesco is consciously (as much as that word can apply) trying to avoid his family. Then the fast part from Skynard’s Freebird gets cranked up. Loud. And we see Jesco’s family “Mud Ballin'” on the front, uh, lawn. The front yard of his family’s holler is simply and nothing but wet mud. Cars and Motorcycles peel out all over the place. One of his brothers blows the engine on his old beat up Chevy. And he is fucking stoked sideways about it. Arms in the air celebrating and hollering. Then we meet Jesco’s sister–Mamie–from the cab of her truck. She “Mud Balls” harder than all of them and she’s “biggest and the meanest.” Mamie explains that it’s just something they like to get together and do once in a while. Two three, maybe four times a week!! After they kill the cars, then they really start partying. The great scene ends with a shot of Dorsey–who I think killed himself not too long ago–soloing on his electric guitar while tap-dancing. Off the fucking hook, man.
Of course though, the star of the film is Jesco. I guess I just have a soft spot for people who seem to be overcome with raw joy when they are doing what they love to do. I honestly don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, but I remember a few times being around some Orthodox Jews and watching ’em dance, and they had the same sense of transcendence on their faces that Jesco does while he is tappin’ his way across a bridge or going for it on the roof of his dog’s house. I also love the fact that Jesco is who he is. He is not in character, even when he is in character. There is something refreshingly sweet about the man–even when he threatens to slit his wife’s throat for making him runny, slimy eggs–that is undeniable and contageous. I’ve watched Dancing Outlaw a dozen times or more and I could watch it again right now. Yes, it is that fucking good. And honest. And enjoyable. And special. I just flat out love it. I can’t recommend Dancing Outlaw highly enough. Buy a copy for yourself!
Real quick: Dancing Outlaw II: Jesco Goes to Hollywood is OK. It’s Jesco, sure, but it just doesn’t have the naiveté or purity of the initial film. Yeah, Tom Arnold giving Jesco a wad of cash to get the swastikas on his hand covered up (Arnold explains, “We’re Jewish”) is pretty fun, especially because Jesco is only partially aware what they mean, but whereas the first film is a tribute to a true one of a kind and fascinating individual, the second film feels exploitive. Also, director Jacob Young cannot resist inserting himself into the festivities, which takes it down several notches. Stick to the first Dancing Outlaw and thank me later.