There are good music documentaries that act as the summation of a career (see Peter Bogdanovich’s Tom Petty doc Runnin’ Down A Dream), documentaries that shine a light on a lesser known talent (Searching For Sugar Man, The Devil and Daniel Johnston), docs that catch a star at shocking heights (Madonna: Truth or Dare), docs that capture the intricate and fascinating inner workings of a creative unit (Some Kind of Monster). What to make of The Ballad of Shovels and Rope, a movie about a band that has been together for three years?
In the film we follow Shovels and Rope, married couple Michael and Cary Ann, as they traverse the nasty world of the independent musician. There’s the travel, the bad weather, the drunk girls beating on your van as you pull out of a bad show, the label execs who say all the right things but maybe don’t have your best interests at heart, the management that wants to give advice but doesn’t want to make a mistake. We see the band write songs, record, get studio fright, fight (not that much actually for a creative married couple), hug, laugh a lot and generally act like two people who love each other. As a finale, there’s the meteoric rise to network TV, industry awards, bigger stages, bigger hair.
The movie stumbles because there’s simply not enough there there. And that’s not Shovels and Ropes’ fault. The couple is talented, motivated, likeable and easy to watch (especially big-hearted Hearst who comes across like a Bette Midler/Tammy Wynette hybrid). But apart from the terrible odds of “making it,” and because we already know that they in fact do “make it,” there’s very little friction in the movie. Who are these people after they get their heart’s desire? What are they like at their worst? Without some tension the film plays like an entertaining profile, another piece of a puzzle designed to make Shovels and Rope a part of your consciousness.
I’m sure the existing fan will find the movie to be more of what they’ve come to appreciate about the band in the first place. There’s plenty to like about them. For the uninitiated, it’s a whirlwind trip from the woods of South Carolina to the Grand Ole Opry. And that’s about it. In the end, The Ballad of Shovels and Rope is not unlike that song that comes on the radio, the one with the high level of hokum, the references to old dogs, drunk loves, hard work, the sunlight on a can of beer— despite yourself, and maybe you don’t tell your friends, but that damn song makes you tear up every time. You just don’t want to listen to it everyday.