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Movies and Music at the First Pioneertown Film Festival

By Vincent Walter Jacob

The golden age of Western films may have passed in Hollywood, but the genre still lives on. As Western movies evolve, they are no longer necessarily associated with saloons and tumbleweeds swaying in the wind. I was curious to see what they had to say in 2022 so I headed to the first edition of the Pioneertown International Film Festival.

The first thing that struck me was the location itself. Pioneertown was created in 1946 by two of the biggest names in the Western film genre, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They set up their film studio near Yucca Valley and shot over 50 films in the 1950s. An entire street of wooden buildings with typical 1880s facades forms Mane Street.

Truth be told, the most impressive thing about the city is not the buildings, but everything that surrounds them. Joshua trees everywhere, orange sand that tickles your nose, and a scorching sun that bathes the rock formations in a light that is unreal: these are the true charms of the Mojave Desert.

Pioneertown Film Festival's first highlight was undoubtedly the premiere of The Last Manhunt, produced by Game of Thrones' Jason Momoa, one of Pioneertown's newest residents. This desert town captured his heart and he wanted to pay homage to it by remaking a classic Robert Redford movie, Tell them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). The Last Manhunt is the latest adaptation of this type of desert Romeo and Juliet, whose main characters, Carlotta and Willie Boy, are natives of the local Chemehuevi tribe.

“We’re not only proud to premiere ‘The Last Manhunt’ on the merits of it being a great film, but we also feel that the reimagining of the Western genre from an indigenous perspective is a very profound and powerful step in the right direction.”

Julian Pinder, Festival Director

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Although it was a film festival, music was a big part of it. They had a very eclectic but strong music program. A Dandy Warhols concert opened the festivities on the first night. Portland's uncompromising group took over the same wooden soundstage for an unforgettable and electrifying performance. I got lucky enough to meet the band at the nearby Red Dog Saloon after their performance and spend the rest of my night hearing them talk about touring with David Bowie and building their own studio/wine bar in Portland, Oregon.

The next morning, I watched my personal highlight of the Film Festival: Swamp Lion. The film is a real tour de force, considering that it was shot on a very modest budget. With only $70,000, one wonders how this team of Scandinavians managed to make such a thrilling, believable and touching neo-western set on the Mexican border somewhere in Texas. Torben Bech, the Danish director and screenwriter, tells a classic story of a respectable couple who must raise the money for cancer treatment for their son. The mother finds no other option than working as a stripper while Jim, the father, turns to his brother, a petty thug with ties to the local cartels. It is Michael Ray Escamilla who portrays this beleaguered father who finds himself forced to become a drug smuggler to save his son. A moving performance, which was heightened by a sense of sadness when I learned that it was his final one. Michael Ray Escamilla passed away just before the film was completed in 2021.

At the end of the screening, I had the impression that I had watched an important film, a feeling shared by the jury since it was awarded Best Feature.

It wasn't just the newest films in competition that made the festival beautiful. There were also some special screenings and interesting panels celebrating the past. Rediscovering Heartworn Highways, a 1975 documentary about Nashville alternative country artists, was an exciting experience for me. Documentary filmmaker James Szalapsky and producer Graham Leader followed then-unknown artists who grew on to become legends in the "Outlaw Country" world. Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle are probably the most famous artists featured in the film. The misfits of Nashville music are shown trying to make ends meet through their music and, most importantly, through building a tight-knit community.

Upon exiting the screening, I noticed people covered in cream. To the delight of everyone around, pie duels were taking place. There were so many activities and animations that happened around the festival, and that was another perk. After I swiftly avoided being targeted by one of the pies, I walked to the Red Dog Saloon again, partly because it was the only place with free wifi and reception, and watched one of the local musicians perform, an avant garde electro-rocker named Jesika Von Rabbit.

The time had come for me to meet the real stars of Pioneertown that were announced to close the festival after the awards ceremony: The Sons of the Pioneers, the oldest band in the world. Roy Rogers himself started them in 1933. Do you remember? The same Roy Rogers who starred in Western films and was a founder of Pioneertown in 1946. His band was the inspiration for Pioneertown's name!

There are no original members left, of course, but the band has never stopped playing since its formation. Whenever one of the members retires or dies, they are immediately replaced. Many attendees were moved to tears by their closing performance. It evoked something immutable in American culture, something that will never change no matter how the society evolves. It is the indestructible faith in the possibility of a new world. Even if the myth falls down, it will always get back on the horse. Happy trails!

Vincent Walter Jacob is the creator of the webzine and podcast Hanging On Sunset, dedicated to covering the rock music scene in Los Angeles. He’s also a film photographer, a published writer and a musician.



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