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 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.”
Cohen makes her full-length narrative debut with The Last Hot Lick, having previously directed a documentary about dancer Homer Avila’s final years (2009’s Balance) and a few narrative shorts (including Cohen’s haunting 2011 film school thesis Ama at Sea, which you should totally just watch right now). Ama at Sea is not exactly a non-linear narrative, but it’s not exactly traditionally told either. The terse script and sly editing (both also Cohen) tell a clear, realistic, relatable story, but tell it slant: viewers are shown only what they need to see and left to draw their own conclusions about the film’s events and their significance, and the ending is both emotionally satisfying and maddeningly unresolved. Completing the film’s uncanny, claustrophobic ambience are contributions from Cohen’s fellow NYU Film School students, most notably the high contrast, close-up rich, hyper-naturalistic cinematography by Kathryn Westergaard and sparse, stereoscopic sound design by Tramontane writer-director Vatche Boulghourjian.
Cohen lists Krzysztof Kieślowski, Sally Potter, Wim Wenders, and Claire Denis among her early influences. (Denis’ Trouble Every Day screens immediately after The Last Hot Lick on Saturday, an oddly appropriate double feature.) All are filmmakers with strong, auteurish styles who skirted the “experimental filmmaker” epithet with their unique takes on the possibilities of narrative cinema, and The Last Hot Lick is, I hope, the first of many full-length narrative films from Cohen.
“My films are narrative but to a degree have non-narrative influences,” Cohen told me. “I’m inspired by people who make all kinds of films—if it works I love it. I don’t set out to make a particular kind of film. It’s not intentional, just natural. I make what feels most natural.”
Neither Leopold nor Smieja had acted in a film before, but Cohen wasn’t worried. “I knew him, I’d seen him on stage and knew he’d be comfortable,” she says. “And I’d seen Smieja and always thought she had an interesting presence. So I asked them if they were interested in being in a movie, and they said yes, so I got busy working on the script. I had the idea for it to be about a musician and use Jaime’s music and his story as a backbone.”
Jaime Leopold: American Quirk
When a band doesn’t have a drummer, the bass player has to be the drummer, and that goes double for a band run by a former drummer (Dan Hicks played drums all through school and, just before forming His Hot Licks, in the foundational but ill-fated acid-folk San Francisco band The Charlatans). Listen to Jaime Leopold’s run with Hicks—from the group’s inception in 1967 through four albums, ending with 1973’s Last Train to Hicksville—and you can hear the anchoring melodic-harmonic sensibility common to all top notch bassists married to a subtle rhythmic drive equal parts laid back and propulsive. To my ear his bass playing with Hicks and company sounds like nothing so much as Greg Cohen’s work with Tom Waits.
The other project Leopold was mixed up in during the Wild Sixties: an astonishing psychedelic electric folk group called Orkustra who put on “Light Shows for the Blind” and recorded 83 minutes of glorious Henry-Cow-on-heavier-acid, reverb-drenched gonzo loveliness before dispersing to various seedy places. Leopold did a brief stint behind bars for selling pot before starting his half-decade stint behind Hicks. The album has already joined Il Balletto di Bronzo’s Ys, Guruh Sukarnoputra and Chrisye’s Guruh Gipsy, and the first Genesis album on my list of favorite semi-obscure albums from the golden age of prog and psychedelia (i.e., 1967-1976).
After Hicks broke up the band in 1973, Leopold came back to Portland to get clean, raise a family, work a square job, and write. Eventually he started making music again, writing songs and gathering a troupe of musicians to back him while he plays guitar and sings. In that way, Jaime Leopold & The Short Stories are not too different from Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, although their style—which the band calls “American Quirk”—is a little more modern, a little more accessible. You can check out their latest release here, here, and here.
The band is in the movie, too, which turned into a family affair: it was produced by Cohen’s mother, a close friend of Leopold’s since the 1970s, when she managed the Portland club where he played in the house band. Leopold’s eldest daughter plays his daughter in the film; his younger daughter was Cohen’s roommate in New York. “Every family member of mine was involved in some way,” Cohen laughs.
The final missing piece: a trio of filmmaker friends traveling to Portland and offering to help on a project if she had something going while they were in town. “I have three good friends from Argentina who said they would come up and work on the movie if I made something in August and September, because it was winter down there.” Leopold and Smieja were available, they all got to work in September 2015, and you can see the results for yourself on Saturday.
“A little unconventional way of making a movie,” Cohen admits, “but it worked out.”
The Last Hot Lick premieres at 7 pm Saturday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium. Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music 35, runs through the end of January. Upcoming screenings include portraits of Seattle guitar maverick Bill Frisell, hipster god Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan (during his born again phase), the Grateful Dead, Sammy Davis, Jr., and electronic music superhero Suzanne Ciani; documentaries examining Fats Domino’s role in the creation of rock and W.C. Handy’s in creating the blues; a sort of sequel to Wim Wenders’ Oscar-winning Buena Vista Social Club; and the always free, always popular Northwest Music Video Showcase (with Sizzle Pie pizza). Like I said: too much going on.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.