SXSW consistently schedules enjoyable low-budget documentaries, and The Last Western is no exception. I confess I decided to see it because I was already planning to see a later movie at the same venue and didn't want to rush from theater to theater. Fortunately, the film turned out to be worth seeing.
The Last Western is about an odd leftover from the days of B-movie Westerns: Pioneertown, California. Investors in the late 1940s decided it would be fun and profitable to build a Western-themed town that also could be used for shooting the Old West on location. A number of Gene Autry movies and TV shows were filmed in Pioneertown until the mid-1950s, when the town started its slow decline. Pioneertown became a hub for the Hell's Angels in the 1970s, then settled back into small-town desert life. Many of the Old West-style buildings became residences; some were boarded up and neglected for decades.
The few people left in Pioneertown—250 or so—tend to have "no regard for rules," as former resident and Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano notes. The film focuses on a few of the more colorful residents, intercutting their stories with appropriate scenes and music from Westerns that were shot in Pioneertown. The film ultimately draws a parallel between the slow, sad decline of Pioneertown and its residents and the decline of the old-school Western genre ... and perhaps the decline of the American West, or at least of its stereotypes. The town's iconoclastic residents may be the last surviving Old West stock characters.
At 65 minutes, The Last Western isn't long enough to get bogged down or tedious. Still, the movie appeared to wander a bit in the middle. I wasn't quite sure what its point was supposed to be, and where the central focus was. The movie recovered by focusing more on Buzz Gamble, one of the town's residents. Buzz is an ex-con, musician, and career drinker. Buzz ends up recording a duet with Johnette Napolitano and also lands a gig as the Concrete Blondes' opening act.
The Last Western is at its strongest in its scenes with Buzz and with "Dazzling" Dallas Morley, a former piano player in her 80s who lived in Pioneertown since its inception. They're each fascinating characters in their own way. The film's profile of another resident, Mary Gaffney, is less successful because Mary is portrayed as laughably weird. The audience laughed at her repeatedly, which seemed out of place with the general theme of the film. Buzz's blunt-spoken mom also drew laughter, but the laughter contained no mockery or contempt.
After the screening, director Chris Deaux said that he'd thought about narrowing the focus of the documentary to just Buzz and his life, and calling it The Last Cowboy. I'm not sure that would have worked quite as well; the film would have had a stronger focal point and possibly a better linear structure, but I preferred to see the unusual history of this strange small town.
Deaux also said that Buzz had once told him that Anthony Hopkins wanted to make a movie based on Buzz's life (presumably casting himself in the lead). Now, that I'd like to see. I hope they include the story about the night Buzz held up a donut shop, which was one of the funniest stories in The Last Western. The documentary screens again at SXSW on Wednesday 3/15 and is worth catching.