Larry Keel - Beautiful Thing

On a budget of $7000, director James Ryan Gielen and his company, Brownpenny Films, have created a documentary that is as unpretentious and rough around the edges as its subject. Beautiful Thing is a stark, black-and-white look at the travels and trials of acoustic guitar genius Larry Keel during 2002. If you have ever met Larry, it is hard to imagine him as the impetus for this project, and by the time the show is over it becomes clear that Gielen was the brains behind the thing. Keel’s salty, hilltopping tunes are treated with the utmost respect and the viewer feels his vision throughout.
Featuring interviews, performances, and candid moments with dozens of Keel's fellow performers and longtime friends, Beautiful Thing looks, feels, and acts like a compilation of home movies. Its purpose is documentary, but it is shot with such candor that it is hard to think of it as "informative" in the true sense of documentary. Anyone who watches that doesn't already know a little bit about Keel might be confused from the get-go.

Not that the film doesn't make an effort to initiate the uninitiated; the opening sequence includes a gushing testimonial from Steve McMurray (Acoustic Syndicate) that compares Keel to Picasso, and there are many striking descriptions that drift onto the screen over a background of Keel footage. But if it does a good of a job of introducing Keel, it does an even better job of mystifying the man. His remarkable talent is on full display for the duration and it feels impossible to the viewer that Keel is still primarily a regional artist.

The video and audio fluctuate wildly throughout the 70+ minute presentation. Sudden, jarring edits and inadequate lighting plague parts of the film. For someone who is already a Keel fan, it's going to be called "charm". For a newbie, it could be considered annoying. Keel's band, the Experience, which includes his wife Jenny, is prominently featured in the film. Jenny Keel seems to take kindly to the camera and opens up about the band's business sense and talks about her husband in reverent tones throughout. Much is made of Larry's relatively unknown status in comparison to acoustic stalwarts like Tony Rice and Vassar Clements.

Anyone who hails from the south will immediately make a connection to the familiar locales that the band visits. One of the first and best-looking performance segments is from MerleFest, a major acoustic/roots/bluegrass festival held in Wilkesboro, NC. Keel takes part in a "midnight jam" that includes Jeff Austin from Yonder Mountain String Band among many other luminaries. This part also features an awestruck Keel backstage at the festival watching Peter Rowan and others warm up for their performances, and includes part of the Experience's daytime set with Tony Rice. Here, Gielen really goes for the jugular in proving the aforementioned unknown status of Keel; as a couple at MerleFest proudly displays an autographed poster from the Old-Time Fiddler's Convention, the camera slowly pans the dozens of signatures in search of Keel's. The couple happily points out many well-known artists with no problem, but it takes several minutes and a lot of searching to find Larry's autograph, which is nearly illegible and apparently scrawled with a pencil.

Moving chronologically, the film presents segments from Smilefest (a high-quality recording which includes an unearthly fiddle solo by Clements and special guest Curtis Burch on dobro), a hastily planned stop at The Connecticut Yankee in San Francisco (where the band is greeted by almost no one), and a solo television appearance from Blowing Rock, NC before a gig at local club Canyon's. A cute young girl in a tank top briefly interviews Keel before he treats the viewers to a "song (he) wrote about the Blue Ridge Mountains". Nowhere during the film are any of the song names shown, which once again may confuse newcomers.

Also spotlighted in the film is the Experience's dedication to preserving the true acoustic sound. No amplifiers or electric instruments can be found among the band's gear, which creates unique situations with soundmen and venues along the way. At The Mellow Mushroom in Chapel Hill, NC, Larry devises a makeshift solution to a troublesome sound area, hanging an exercise mat in one corner of the room; in Atlanta, the band's soundcheck turns into a lengthy ordeal as Keel and the soundman clash over the stage volume and just about everything else; and Jenny Keel offers a lengthy explanation of Larry's "mission", which is to keep the spirit and true sound of acoustic music alive.

One of the representative moments in the film takes place at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, NC, with Larry opening for Yonder Mountain String Band. After a lengthy spiel by Jenny about how the opening slots are "strategic" moves for Larry, he promptly breaks a string less than a minute into his first song. Jenny quickly moves in and gets the primary guitar ready while Larry performs a song with his backup guitar.

No amounts of setbacks seem able to keep the Keels and the Experience from doing what they love. Earlier in the film, Jenny states, with a touch of rebellious fortitude, "We don't consider what we do to be temporary."

The DVD is embellished with two menus worth of deleted performances and band footage that are a definite asset for those who are just becoming familiar with the music. Overall, this is a unique and intensely human film that just might become essential as Keel's music continues to evolve and innovate.

--Bryan Rodgers