Reel Music 35

‘The Last Hot Lick’: American quirk

Filmmaker Mahalia Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make a film based on the life of Portland musician and former Hot Lick Jaime Leopold

Award-winning director Mahalia Cohen developed The Last Hot Lick while trying to fund another film she had written. “In 2015, for awhile I’d been trying to get a movie made, get funding,” the Portland-born, New York-based filmmaker said about Thinner Than Water. (You can watch the charming visual study she shot for it in Oregon right here.) “Money comes and goes and falls through, so I decided I just wanted to make something and thought about what I could make that would be accessible. I came up with three options, and working with Jaime was one of ‘em.”

“Jaime” is Jaime Leopold: star of The Last Hot Lick, original bass player for cult crossover band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, and for the last several years the primary singer-songwriter behind the local “Folk / Country / Acid Memory” band Jaime Leopold and the Short Stories. Cohen reached back to her Portland roots to make The Last Hot Lick, screening Saturday in the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium as part of Reel Music 35, the Northwest Film Center’s annual celebration of music in film.

Leopold, right, with Short Stories.

Leopold plays Jack Willits, a 60-something singer-storyteller playing “a never-ending tour of small gigs in Eastern Oregon,” which sounds pretty great to me and just about right for the founder of Portland’s favorite “American QuirkTM” band. Short Stories vocalist Jennifer Smieja evokes The Muse as a mystery woman Willits puts his hopes in, and both will perform at the screening. Director Cohen will be in attendance to talk about her film with Smieja and Leopold, whom she’s known since childhood.

Mahalia Cohen: Natural Filmmaker

Cohen got her start as a filmmaker right here, not just in Portland but at NWFC. “I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from a very early age,” she recalls. “I started saying I wanted to be a director when I was about 10, and I took my first classes at Northwest Film Center when I was 13.”

In 1998 Cohen left Portland for New York City and film school. “I loved the nature and the landscape in Oregon growing up, but had a real feeling that I wanted to get away, go to New York, someplace bigger,” she remembers. “[Oregon] became embedded in my imagination and my artistic life; even though I’ve lived away half my life, it’s grown in importance. It’s always been there. It’s in my brain.” One of the various scripts she has in development takes place in ‘90s Portland, although Cohen notes that it “couldn’t be shot in Portland anymore, [because] the Portland of the ‘90s doesn’t exist anymore.”

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