White Lightnin', Dominic Murphy, 92 mins, (18)

No cliché about American hillbilly life is left unturned in this messy biopic about an obscure dancer from the Appalachian mountains. Unfortunately, there's not much of a story either

Inspired by the life of Appalachian mountain dancer Jesco White, White Lightnin' is (for me, at least) an example of that select sub-genre, Biopics of People You've Never Heard of.

Apparently, White is a living legend, a muse to such acts as The Kentucky Headhunters, Sam Black Church, Trailer Bride and Ekoostik Hookah – but then, I've never heard of them either. So I Googled ol' Jesco, and still wasn't entirely convinced that he existed. It was only when I got to his YouTube clips (dancing as a lithe young buck; sporting Methusaleh's beard; threatening to kill his wife if she kept serving him "sloppy eggs") that I had to accept that he probably was real. (Still, it can't be long before some ingenious makers of a fake biopic manage to plant enough bogus internet material to turn fiction into truth, Borges-style.)

That said, Dominic Murphy's film clearly plays fast and loose: this is an apocalyptic fantasy about a folk hero who's essentially a platonic ideal of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fred Astaire, all mashed together in an ol' fruit jar and stamped with a limited-edition label designed by Nick Cave. The film begins as white-trash misery memoir, with Jesco (Edward Hogg) reminiscing in voice-over about how, back in the boondocks of Boone County, his young self would spend his time carving crucifixes into his arm and huffin' (sniffing gasoline and lighter fluid). In walks Mom to find him in a pool of blood: "Jeesus! He's on the gas agin!"

Back from reform school, Jesco returns to his family's shack, where his father D Ray (the mightily grizzled Muse Watson) tries to straighten his boy out by teaching him the art of mountain dancing: before long, Jesco literally steps into Daddy's shoes. But for all Jesco's skill, he's soon doing more huffin' than hoofin', growing a crazed mop of mountain-man beard and muttering balefully about the men who, one dark night, done wrong by his Paw: "Some thought that vengeance is best left to the Lord ..."

One of the unlikeliest films yet to bear the UK Film Council stamp, this partly Croatian-shot production represents an extreme case of nostalgie de la boue – that means hankerin' for mud, boy, and I mean a lot of mud. The depiction of hillbilly life is a Hogarthian panorama of grizzled grotesques that does for the dignity of Appalachian working folk what Borat did for rural Kazakhstan.

British actor Hogg is charismatic as Jesco in his prime, slicked-back hair and legs limber in Michael Jackson socks. And he has a nice lustful rapport with the older woman, Cilla, who runs off with him: it may be novelty casting to have Carrie Fisher play such a cheerfully raunchy part, but she brings considerable warmth to the film, gamely playing up in such scenes as a jolly lesson on the pros and cons of mixing oral sex with chilli peppers.

But as Jesco gets ever more bristly and manic, Hogg's performance has nowhere to go but a thicket of feral gurning, and even in his most unhinged moments, those are still disconcertingly Hogg's matinee-idol eyes glimmering from that hellhound visage.

Director Murphy's visual choices never quite cohere, caught between stylisation and grubby realism: the sequences of Jesco's boyhood seem unduly aestheticised, the colour bled to a glazed near-monochrome. But in the final stretch, as the film hits full psych-out mode, it rather compellingly takes on the fried textures of a third-generation bootleg copy of an Eighties video nasty. There may be a hell of a story here, but given the film's confusing relation to the facts, it's hard to know exactly why Jesco White has been singled out for celebration. As for his dancing, which we see relatively little of, to be honest it looks a bit, well ... girly, its basic steps not dissimilar to Shirley Temple doing "The Good Ship Lollipop".

A knowing attempt to make an instant cult classic, a kind of grade-Z Walk the Line, White Lightnin' comes across as somewhat callous, treating its hillbilly milieu largely as Gothic exoticism. There's no point complaining that it's exploitative, since it's targeted at the hipster constituency for whom "exploitation" is a positive buzzword. But in the end, White Lightnin' is more mess than madness – a jar of moonshine that should be labelled "Appalachian non contrôlé".

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence