“The Secret to a Happy Ending,” which will have its premiere at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre on Friday night, chronicles the life and impact of the Drive-By Truckers, a rock-and-roll band that may not enjoy fame on a mass scale, but claims an unusually potent connection with its fans. It’s a connection the film’s director, Barr Weissman felt first-hand when he saw them in 2003. One song in particular, “The Living Bubba,” frontman Patterson Hood’s high and mournful ode to a friend who had died, reduced Weissman to an emotional pulp.
Weissman, who lives in Takoma Park, had been working 80- and 100-hour weeks as a freelance video editor when he decided to take a break and see the show. And as Hood crooned the song’s refrain (“I can’t die now ’cause I got another show to do”), Weissman began to cry, right there at 9:30 club. He explains: “I think it says a lot about their art in general that they can do a song that Patterson clearly wrote for a specific person at specific moment in time, but that connects on a fundamental level of the human experience.”
Weissman decided to make a movie about the band after seeing them again the following January, courted them over the course of a year, began filming their concerts in early 2005 and spent a rocky two years fitting his own documentary between editing assignments. He also found himself buffeted by the ups and downs of the Drive-By Truckers’ own career, at one point being asked to leave a recording session in North Carolina.
“The Secret to a Happy Ending” honors many of the usual rock-doc conventions. It features interviews with DBT founders Hood and Mike Cooley, band mates Brad Morgan and Shonna Tucker, as well as former DBT (and Tucker’s ex-husband) Jason Isbell. It captures the sweaty fervor and sacramental devotion of a typical DBT show. It includes the requisite music critic (Geoffrey Himes) and academic (Temple University American studies professor Bryant Simon).
But, like the Drive-By Truckers themselves, “The Secret to a Happy Ending” doesn’t strictly obey the rules of the very genre it belongs to. Made by an unabashed fan, what it might lack in hard-nosed inquiry it makes up in conveying the ardor and near messianic belief that have made Drive-By Truckers a cult sensation.
Since self-releasing their first album, “Gangstabilly,” in 1998 and especially with their audacious double-concept-album “Southern Rock Opera” in 2001, the band has gathered legions of admirers not only of its music, but of its steadfast do-it-yourself work ethic, grinding out endless tours and selling CDs after shows. “The Secret to a Happy Ending” pays homage to the DBTs’ survival as a grass-roots, DIY operation; at its ragged best, the film captures the singular blend of grit, sensitivity, stamina and acute songwriting that have led admirers to compare them to Neil Young, William Faulkner, the Replacements and Robert Penn Warren.
The documentary also happens to chronicle the most parlous moment of the band’s career, when Isbell and Tucker’s marriage was beginning to fray and when the band itself seemed like it might not last. (Isbell left the band in 2007.) But its gravitational center is the fruitful and fractious collaboration between Hood and Cooley, who met in 1985 in Muscle Shoals, Ala. – Hood is the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player David Hood – and formed an early punk band called Adam’s House Cat.
Their close-but-distant relationship remains something of a mystery even to themselves. “This is our 25th year,” Hood says from his home in Athens, Ga. “We’re having our silver jubilee this summer, I kid you not. And it’s weird, because we couldn’t be more different. We’re total opposites. I think there just came a point in time when we both realized we respect each other. That’s the bottom line.”
Cooley, who lives outside Birmingham, Ala., concurs. “We tried to be roommates once and boy, that was a disaster,” he says, adding that while they’re terrific collaborators in the studio and on stage, “on a personal space level we’re daylight and dark.”
Director Weissman notes that the pair rarely speak when they’re not on the road; whereas Cooley is “comfortable in his own skin, being alone,” Hood is more gregarious. “He wants to do the right thing for everyone around him, and it runs him ragged,” Weissman says. Musically, however, the two mesh with uncanny ease: “For better or worse, it’s a perfect combination.”
And as for the title of his film? “I think persistence is the secret to a happy ending,” Weissman says. “It is for me, and I think it is for them.”
The Secret to a Happy Ending will be shown Friday at 9:15 p.m. and midnight at AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Weather permitting, band members Mike Cooley and Brad Morgan will attend the 9:15 screening. Call 301-495-6700 or visit: