Directed by Ryan Ross.
Starring Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Audrey Spillman, Bobby Tomberlin, Bart Herbison, Jim Ed Norman, Travis Meadows, and Anastasia Munoz.
Wheeler is an aspiring musician from Kaufman, Texas who travels to Nashville with the lifelong dream of trying his hand at country music. By embodying the title character under prosthetic make up, actor Stephen Dorff successfully infiltrates Music City and takes his character on an authentic singer / songwriter journey. With the help of key allies on the ground, “Wheeler” converses with real people in real locations, with every musical number performed live. The line between reality and fiction blurs as Wheeler chases his dream in this touching tribute to old school country legends.
As an avid film buff, sometimes it’s nice when a film comes out of the blue and takes you pleasantly by surprise. In the age of the internet it doesn’t happen too often. We all, as film fans, have our own personal lists of anticipated films that we await eagerly. Sometimes word of mouth will take a film on a wave from obscurity to cult following (think Don’t Breathe last year for one). In addition sometimes it’s nice when an actor or actress who has slipped into the background, jumps out of the darkness to remind you of their talent.
So we have Wheeler. A fictional documentary starring Stephen Dorff as the titular Wheeler, an aspiring Texan country musician who has come through personal tragedy and looks to bring his music to the home of country, in Nashville. Played entirely straight, Dorff embodies the character, injecting Wheeler with no shortage of his own personal experience with loss. This is a heartfelt homage to country music, particularly the golden period. There are references to Kris Kristofferson (who also appears as himself), Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen to name a few.
For a film such as this, so simple in narrative, and somewhat acquired in taste as far as the country music core to succeed, there are a couple of aspects that the film-makers absolutely had to get right. Firstly, we have to buy Dorff as Wheeler. That has to happen in two ways. Firstly in the way he embodies the character. On this level, Dorff knocks it out of the park. It’s a really authentic, engrossing and heartfelt performance. Wheeler is likeable. He’s a simple guy, but good-hearted, but he’s complex too. From the outside of Texas one may get an image of the Texan these days as someone like Yosemite Sam. Angry, hate filled, but unlike a Looney Toon, he wants his state clear of outsiders and not just Rabbits. Some may, with no small amount of ignorance, view the southern states (those where the predominant demographic is white) as Trump supporting, gun wielding hicks. This film, with a passion, and with a central character of charm and grace (and authenticity) shows the counter to that. In fact in one opening scene on the road to Nashville, Wheeler gives a little history lesson about Texas and how illegal immigrants claimed ownership of the land as he bemoans those who moan about immigrants (as they sit on lands their immigrant ancestors took forcefully). Of course it extends further than that and America as we know it was built on immigration, something the current President appears (despite his own immigrant heritage) to have forgotten…but that’s for another time and place to discuss further.
From the off we get behind Wheeler. The next element to Wheeler that was essential, was that we have to buy this guy as a musician, with a musical story to tell. They could have faked it skilfully with clever editing and a Milli Vanilli approach but thankfully it just so happens that Dorff himself comes from a musical family. He’s a good singer, performer and evidently songwriter. We buy it. He sells it to the audience. So as well as Wheeler himself the other aspect we need to invest in, is the music itself. If the music is terrible, we can’t sit there and buy into someone making a break into the industry as a potentially game-changing artist. Again, and thanks to Dorff, we can invest in this because the music is actually good. I want the soundtrack. The songs are melancholic, soulful and passionate. The other day I was listening to the underrated Springsteen album, Nebraska (in among perhaps his poppiest era he did this very stripped down and beautifully wistful album, packed with engrossing musical storytelling). If there’s one compliment I can pay to Dorff’s music here, it’s that it brought back to mind listening to Nebraska.
The film perhaps meanders here and there (and veers toward the predictable), and Dorff’s prosthetic eyebrows are a bit odd, but regardless, Wheeler is an enjoyable, sincere film. I can’t help but feel that there’s a real-life Wheeler out there somewhere who could be found, to make something even more genuine, but of course this film would have been funded and made because of Stephen Dorff. However I suppose it’s the point of the project. It’s an homage to all the real-life Wheeler’s. Whether they’re just on their way to Nashville, or they became big stars (Kristofferson for example), or they’ve not taken their guitar out of the living room. Wheeler is beautifully crafted with an emotionally and musically brilliant performance from Stephen Dorff.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★