At the end of September, I wrote a piece on the late, great Chris Whitley that included my consternation over a documentary on his life that was in production at one point, but never saw the light of day:
After his death, his family created a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a documentary. You can find a page for “Dust Radio: A Film About Christ Whitley” on the Internet Movie Database. How one actually sees the film is an open question. The web site for the movie has not been updated since 2012 and the Facebook page seems abandoned.
Just yesterday as I was working on a forthcoming article, I pulled up YouTube on my television, spoke the name “Chris Whitley” into my Apple TV with the intention of having some background music while I wrote. Imagine my surprise when I saw the following link below show up on my screen:
The video was posted by Josie Lindstrom with the below quote:
The creators of this film abandoned the project, but not before releasing a preview version of it. I’ve been waiting for them to polish it but they’re nowhere to be found. So, I figured I’d post this for Chris Whitley fans.
I quickly looked at the running time on the video and saw the length of the film listed at one hour and thirty-three minutes. I was so stunned I nearly dropped my remote. I immediately disregarded what I had written and pressed play.
What I soon learned is that this was indeed it. The full movie. Clearly a somewhat rough cut with some minor technical issues, but again, this was it! The full film. I was so excited I ran upstairs to tell my wife (side note: never run into the room and say “something interesting just happened” to your spouse. WAY too many possibilities can follow that sentence), who, also being a Christ Whitley fan (I married well), told me to pull it up on our iMac in the bedroom.
What we found was a sad, often beautiful, and extremely moving film that – unfinished aspects aside – truly burnishes the image of an artist who far too few are aware of.
Dust Radio begins with a Shakespeare quote:
There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so.
A somewhat inscrutable way to start the film, but then the career of Chris Whitley was hard to characterize too. Over the next hour and a half, Dust Radio gets to the bottom of why. Why did someone with so much talent and so many industry champions not reach a larger audience?
The answer lies with the subject himself. Despite receiving wonderful reviews and respectable enough sales on his debut album, Whitley found the record to be over-produced and not an accurate representation of him as an artist. Whitley wanted something raw and fierce. Which is why he eschewed Living With The Law’s atmospherics and tone for Din of Ecstasy, a rollicking and occasionally shambolic follow up. It’s a terrific record, but as former Sony Records chairman, Donnie Ienner notes in the film, simply too far away from what people loved about his first record. And when his third record for the, Terra Incognita also tanked, Ienner could no longer convince those above him to stick with Whitley, and he was dropped from the label.
Whitley simply couldn’t stand to compromise. What he could stomach was alcohol. According to one interviewee, Whitley could drink a half a bottle of vodka in one swig and still be upright afterwards. Unfortunately, the normally sweet and unassuming musician would become mean-spirited and impossible once the liquor took hold.
Remarkably, his love of the drink didn’t slow his recording output. Some of the records that followed – especially Dirt Floor and Soft Dangerous Shores – were among the best of his career. While the size of his audience waxed and (mostly) waned, he persevered.
There was a terrible cost though. The most heart-rending sequences of the doc involve a 2005 interview with a haggard Whitley, laying on a mattress on the floor, surrounded by boxes due to a pending eviction, with a cigarette in one hand, an ashtray on one side, and three bottles of green Gatorade on the other. Whitley is clearly not well and probably high. At one point he takes his trademark dobro and throws it against the ground. He then proceeds to tell you how much he loves the instrument. It hurt so much to see, it made me wince.
There are revealing interviews in the film from other music industry types as well as famed producers Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn. Lanois helped Whitley get his start by bringing him to New Orleans and setting him up in a house so he could record with Burn unencumbered by other concerns. Of the two, Burn makes you feel the loss of Whitley most deeply. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, you get the feeling that Burn looks at Living With The Law as one of his greatest achievements as a producer in his career. He loved Chris so that he recorded Soft Dangerous Shores with him despite the fact that there was clearly no money in it for him.
The film includes some great footage of Whitley playing live on stage, in studio, and just fooling around on a back porch. One segment shows Whitley singing Automatic with his daughter, Trixie (who couldn’t have been more than eight or nine at the time). It’s just the two of them singing together while he plays guitar. No artifice, no audience, just a father and a daughter sharing harmony. It’s a moment that sends your heart straight to your throat.
It’s hard to understand why Dust Radio wasn’t finished. Even in its current form, it plays like a real film. There is some audio that could use some clean up. A couple quotes from on camera interviews are repeated as voice overs in a way that leads you to believe the filmmakers hadn’t decided in which place to use the words. And the segue to his death seems a bit rushed and unpolished.
Still, this is a tremendously effective document of a man who deserved better – even if he spent much of his time getting in his own way. I know for me, discovering this film on December 23rd felt a lot like Christmas coming early. I recommend it to anyone who loved Chris or to those who are looking to discover a great artist. Believe me, if you are the latter and you watch this film, you will soon become the former.
Walk it with the spirit
Talk it with the spine
Mama sing “Open up yourself when worlds align”
My secret Jesus,
The good red road
On blood antenna
And dust radio
Note: I have reached out to Josie Lindstrom on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to find out how she came into contact with the video, why she uploaded it, and what her connection to Chris might have been. At the time of publication, I had not yet heard from her. For now, I will just offer her my grateful and heartfelt thank you.