Documentary filmmakers A.J. Schnack and David Wilson knew it would be easy to make fun of Branson, middle America’s flag-waving, family-friendly celebration of musical variety shows and early-bird dinner specials.
But the Midwest natives felt a stronger obligation to dig beneath the surface and portray local performers and town leaders as more than aw-shucks Ozark folk.
The result is “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new film that unspools a nuanced story of how the southwest Missouri resort is dealing with the aftermath of an economic recession, an aging audience and performance troupes whose gay cast members live a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” among their conservative Christian neighbors.
“We wanted to present stories that go beyond the facade,” said Wilson, who grew up in and still lives in the college town of Columbia. “We knew there was something there beyond the stereotype.”
Tourism boosters across Missouri held their breath. A critical look at the place that refers to itself as “the live music show capital of the world” could have serious ramifications in a town of just more than 10,000 residents that supports 50 theaters and 100 shows with combined total of nearly 65,000 seats — more than Broadway.
“We were very, very nervous about the final product,” said Missouri tourism director Katie Steele Danner, a former Branson resident who attended the festival screening.
Penetrating the city’s fiercely guarded barrier, which provided the movie’s title, took five years and hundreds of hours of footage. The film follows four story arcs: the Presley family, whose country jubilee opened a half-century ago and paved the way for the dozens of theaters to follow; the Lennon siblings, proud California liberals who followed Lawrence Welk to town after starring on his TV show as children; the struggling Magnificent Variety Show, whose cast members must pass out discount coupons to disinterested tourists while hoping their late paychecks don’t bounce; and performer Chip Holderman, a single father whose “lifestyle” clashes with his ex-wife’s new husband.
The filmmakers initially thought they would chronicle alternative youth culture in a town with few outward signs of rebellion or dissent. Instead, they were drawn to a version of Branson that doesn’t appear in glossy tourism brochures: rural homeless, illiterate hotel workers and variety show co-owner Tamra Tinoco singing “Johnny B. Goode” to an unsuspecting audience while simultaneously writing a backstage note to her employees that “paychecks will be here tomorrow. Wait another day.”
The documentary will be distributed nationally in 2014. It kicked off the annual St. Louis International Film Festival in November.
Dan Lennon, whose singing sisters were a household name during their Welk heyday, said the film is a “realistic portrayal of our community. It’s not an ideal one.”
After decades as the butt of jokes, realism has cache in Branson. Whether it was a televised visit by “The Beverly Hillbillies” to the Silver Dollar City theme park or the recurring jabs by “The Simpsons” — whose “Ode to Branson” intones, “They took Nick at Nite and made it a town” — Branson has been comedic low-hanging fruit from the start.
“If you wanted to make fun of Branson, Missouri, it’d be like shooting fish in a barrel,” Bill Lennon said. “It’s so easy. But there’s some complexity.”
Schnack, who grew up in Edwardsville, Ill., outside St. Louis and attended the University of Missouri, said he discovered a commitment to craft among Branson’s performers that rivals the more celebrated stages in New York, London or Los Angeles.
Sure, Gary Presley’s baggy overalls, tattered straw hat and exaggerated country accent play up the hillbilly trope, but he and others also slyly subvert that image — often at the expense of the city slickers who come to town for what Schnack called “high-quality entertainment that pushes against the envelope maybe just a little bit, but never enough that it would make the audience uncomfortable.”
“They know how to do that in a very specific way,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that Branson is very successful.”
A century ago, visitors flocked to Branson’s limestone Marvel Cave, drawn to a rugged region immortalized in the Ozarks novel “The Shepherd of the Hills.” Now, they’re drawn to golf resorts, outlet malls and God-and-country entertainment by entertainers such as the Osmond family, Yakov Smirnov and 3 Redneck Tenors. It’s a business model heavily indebted to nostalgia, but Wilson said that those who question Branson’s future — or underestimate its ability to adapt — are likely to again be proven wrong.
“Branson has always found a way to bring people to its natural beauty, and then separate them from their money,” he said “I think Branson will continue to thrive.”
Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier