Do the Drive-by Truckers know the meaning to life? After taking in the documentary that covers their career spanning 20 years, The Secret to a Happy Ending, it at least seems they have found the secret to keeping an act together. Any musician can appreciate and indeed, envy this, as the number of bands that have managed to stay together this long are an elite bunch. Though the Drive-by Truckers have had several reincarnations, losing and gaining members along a winding road through success and speed-bumps, the film leaves us with the feeling that somehow, the music will prevail and keep this independent act together for many more years to come.
Directed by Barr Weissman, The Secret to a Happy Ending recounts the early days of the two founding members of the Drive-by Truckers, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, in small-town Alabama. The film gives a brief history to Hood and Cooley’s up-bringing, and their stints in less-successful bands before forming the Drive-by Truckers. In revisiting and conducting interviews in their childhood homes, it becomes clear where a lot of the lyrics and sentiments in the Truckers’ songs stem from; in fact, both musicians tell the stories behind several of their popular songs and reveal that a number of them are unabashedly autobiographical. In addition to creating music based on their or their families’ experiences, the documentary touches on the class issues of living in The Shoals in Northern Alabama, and how this influenced them to work hard to escape the negativity there.
As someone who is watching this film as an introduction to the Drive-by Truckers, one of the most engaging aspects about their story was how the band was able to keep moving on after supporting themselves without a label for so long. The film mentions the band drove 72,000 in their van in one year while on tour, and they would sell 5,000 copies of their albums out of the back of this van. A combination of a devout fan base, as well as a strong belief in their music, kept the Truckers together through some difficult times; when the band was just about to combust, the founding duo would keep it together because of a driving belief in their songs. Whether it be in the memory of a fellow musician who inspired them by playing music to stay alive, as in the case of local legend Gregory Smalley, or to honor the wishes of a deceased would’ve-been member of the band, there was always a deeper reason to keep playing the music. The band also just couldn’t stand the thought of falling into the cliché of breaking up due to lack of big-time success.
The Secret to a Happy Ending peppers the film with live concert footage and interviews several die-hard fans throughout, while maintaining the low-key vibe of the band by showing real moments with their family. One of the movie’s highlights is an aside with Wes Freed, the wildly talented artist who creates all of their album artwork, sketching and talking about how he comes up with his ideas.
Overall, the film does a good job of touching on all the basics a newcomer would like to know about the band; if lacking anything, the already-initiated may yearn for more behind-the-scenes moments with the band members together on the road or at their shows. Though the movie chronicles the coming together and break-up of members Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker, we are only given a tiny window into their friction before Isbell leaves the Truckers. Just like the band members themselves, the movie is down-to-earth and only lightly touches the drama, opting to keep moving forward with what happens next. It’s these survival stories that are the most engrossing and make the film one worth seeing.
“The Secret to Happiness” is the late night film that plays this Friday as a part of the Art Theater’s Documentary Film Festival starting this week and running through the 27th. “Happiness” will play three nights: 1/21, 1/22, and 1/27 at 10pm. Late night shows are only $5.