A Story That Needs to be Told

I love good stories. Sitting in a rocking chair on my grandmother’s front porch on a hot Alabama summer night, listening to my father and his brothers laugh about boyhood egg-stealing; cold November evenings in northern Minnesota while the Block kids recall the bringing-the-horse-in-the-house tale; Edith Schaeffer, dropping names and recounting miracles high in the Swiss Alps: it doesn’t get any better than this.

In my opinion Get Low tells a very good story. My delight in it is, no doubt, due in part to the fact that Chris Provenzano’s screenplay is as essentially southern a tale as the ones I used to hear on my grandmother’s front porch. The personalities, events, music, the look and feel of it are as familiar to me as my Dad’s stories of his childhood. I know these people. Indeed I wonder how many of them I may be related to. For me, watching Get Low felt like a visit home.

Of course, these qualities that endeared it to me may distance it from others. The New York Times review of Get Low, while quite complimentary on the whole, couldn’t resist this jab:  “Get Low is, in the end, not quite believable.” Not believable? You need to spend a little time south of Manhattan.

Actor Robert Duvall’s taste in stories is impeccable. Over the years he’s brought many of them to life and created some unforgettable characters: Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Sonny Dewey in The Apostle, Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Get Low’s Felix Bush is as memorable as any of them. “I talked to God a lot about you over the years,” a friend tells him. “He said he broke the mold when he made you, said you sure were entertaining to watch—but way too much trouble.”

After living alone for more than 30 years in a cabin in the woods near a small town in the hills, Bush startles the local minister with his presence one morning and with an odd request: “It’s time for me to get low,” he says, and explains that he wants to host his own funeral, a big party to which everyone is town is invited to come and tell stories about him. He, of course, wants to be present—alive–and to listen.

From this unconventional beginning the story leisurely unfolds through the introduction and interaction of other memorable characters. When the preacher declines to take part, Bush turns to Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the director of the local funeral home, whose reservations about the project are easily overcome by his greed: “Oooh, hermit money!” Frank’s greenhorn assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) gently guides Bush—and us– through the preparations. The appearance of Bush’s old flame Mattie (Sissy Spacek) after an absence of many years adds a touch of spice and grace to proceedings.

All these apparently random introductions take on a sharper focus when we meet Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), the minister Bush wants to preach at his funeral. It seems Jackson is the only man alive that knows a certain story about Bush and his past, a story that Bush wants told, a story that needs to be told. It’s a story of love and loss, of sin and redemption, of guilt and forgiveness. And I couldn’t help but wonder in hearing it if this is what made Get Low so “unbelievable” to the New York Times.

What makes a story a story that needs to be told? Writer Rebecca Horton gives this answer:

“I sometimes challenge myself by asking the question “does this story need to be told?”   …stories become needed, not because the author felt that they were needed, but instead because there is a deep human longing for truth, meaning, and relationship that extends beyond material need. Good stories scratch the itch that lies just below the surface of things, churning up just enough dust to make others curious.”

Get Low admirably scratches the itch without satisfying it. It stirs up the dust just enough to make us curious. It’s a tale that needs to be told. Would that more filmmakers, especially those who are believers, learn to tell it as well.