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▸ September 11, 2014


BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor jself@bakersfield.com

The film had its world premiere in Los Angeles, but “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” finally comes home on Sept. 18, to a venue that doesn’t get more Bakersfield Sound-ified: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.

“Now it’s finally going to be played for the people who helped make it,” said filmmaker Joe Saunders, the grandson of Mize, a country music performer and television personality who, decades ago, joined Owens, Merle Haggard and their contemporaries in creating a raw and thoroughly original hybrid of rockabilly and honky-tonk that made the city famous.

“I met my grandfather as an adult — not literally — but I’ve learned so much more about him as an adult and have a deeper understanding and respect for him,” said Saunders, 35, a Los Angeles filmmaker.

The festivities kick off at 6 p.m. with, naturally, a little Bakersfield Sound music, courtesy of Tommy Hays and other local trailblazers of the 1950s and ’60s. The screening follows, at around 7 or 7:30.

Saunders hopes his grandfather will be able to attend, but a recent fall broke a vertebra in Mize’s back “and he’s kind of been immobile.” The filmmaker’s mother and aunt — Mize’s daughters — are expected, and Saunders has invited several Bakersfield Sound players, like Red Simpson and Bobby Durham.

One local cheering section he’s counting on are the eight to 10 fans who — clad in Bakersfield Sound T-shirts — attended the film’s June premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The spirited crew brought a welcome blast of Bakersfield to the theater, whose audience consisted mostly of Angelenos.

“They had trouble getting us out of the theater because so many people wanted to come down and give appreciation to me,” Saunders recalled. “So they had to kick us out.”

The culmination of six years of work and financial sacrifice, the film played before a sold-out crowd of 300.

“I was a bit nervous,” the filmmaker said. “The moderator called me up and I thanked everyone for coming. That was a very exciting moment for me. I don’t think I’ve played a film of mine in a theater that big.”

Enter the Crystal Palace, which seats 500, give or take. Buckaroo band leader Jim Shaw, who helped Saunders “immensely” with his expertise and contacts in the music licensing field, offered up the venue.

“Jim saw the movie and was really affected by it,” Saunders said. “I know the Crystal Palace isn’t necessarily built for a screening like this, but it seems like such a great place to show it. I know they have a good audio system, which is an important part of watching the movie.”

Though music is essential in any discussion of the Bakersfield Sound, the film’s true focus is on Mize, the man.

The popular recording artist and television host has suffered many tragedies in his life — the death of his two sons and a debilitating stroke — but never grew bitter.

“There are so many different threads in this movie,” Saunders said. “You’re going to see how a man makes choices in life that really determine the outcome of his career. Some of those might be the sacrifice of a family life and some are a sacrifice of fame, and Billy’s was the latter.

“But if you want to talk about the Bakersfield Sound, I think you’re going to learn how that music changed the industry, how something like that can get started in such an out-of-the-way place as Bakersfield — and I mean that in the nicest possible way.”

If fans miss next week’s Bakersfield screening, they could be out of luck, at least for now. A distribution deal has yet to materialize, though that’s not uncommon for a small documentary film like this one, Saunders said.

“If this could get an actual theatrical release, that would be great,” the filmmaker said. “It’s possible to do that with some new companies out there that help smaller movies get distributed theatrically.

“Or we could have it go straight to digital, iTunes and Netflix. Maybe PBS? That would be great because that’s our demographic anyway, and there’s more eyes that way.”

After the Bakersfield screening, the film continues on the festival circuit, landing in Dallas next month. Saunders is relying on word of mouth and positive reviews to keep the momentum going. But it’s really only one review that matters much to him: his grandfather’s:

“He saw the final version of the film. He’s kind of tired of watching it,” Saunders said with a laugh. “He’s seen so many versions now. He loves it. He’s always very positive.”

Reviews for ‘Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound’

Los Angeles Daily “(The) documentary ‘Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound’ is the loving tribute you would expect, but is also, quite happily, a damn fine piece of filmmaking. Treasure troves of rare footage and recordings are deployed to tell the exuberant Mize’s sometimes tragic story and give us a comprehensive history of the music scene that challenged Nashville’s dull dominance in the 1950s, ’60s and beyond.”

The Hollywood Reporter: “Using a standard doc format that combines archival material with new talking-head interviews and verite footage, director William J. Saunders has made an intimate and well-researched homage that explores the mysterious alchemy of stardom and the choices and happenstance that can make or break it. Though the filmmaker is Mize’s grandson — a relationship that’s revealed only in the closing credits — the film is no hagiography. It is, however, filled with admirers, among them musicians Haggard, Willie Nelson, an exceptionally insightful Dave Alvin and the late Ray Price.”