It seems odd to think of someone who had more than one eponymous television show, shared the stage with some of music’s most recognizable artists and lent style tips to Elvis himself as having a disappointing career. But there’s a running thread throughout “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” that suggests its titular subject was capable of a level of stardom far greater than what actually achieved.
Even if those closest to him may lament that Billy Mize isn’t as much of a household name as his most notable peers (Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Roger Miller, among others), William J. Saunders’ documentary does an admirable job of demonstrating the many ways Mize’s efforts still resonated in the history of the country music genre.
A product of the post-Depression migration to better prospects in California, a young Billy picked up the guitar and became one of the early success stories of the Bakersfield music scene. After a series of serendipitous circumstances gave him the opportunity to work alongside some of the musical idols of his youth, Mize’s reputation grew in the early 1950s as television became a viable way to open up country music to wider audiences. He managed to fuse his gifts as a singer-songwriter with his on-screen presence to become one of the country music world’s preeminent TV personalities.
“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” shows that what Billy Mize might not have fully achieved in notoriety as a solo music act, he left a legacy in his influence. Two of the film’s most satisfying sequences show his reach as a songwriter and an industry fixture. A quick montage of Bakersfield journalists and a handful of genre titans pick their favorite Mize tunes, rattling them off with awed reverence. Soon after, we hear a rendition of the Mize-penned “Who Will Buy the Wine?” pieced together using other recordings of the song by a slew of legendary artists, including Bob Dylan.
With family photos and archival performance footage alike, the film also documents the profound losses that reverberated through his personal life, even as he continued to smile for TV cameras. As the repercussions of the sudden loss of multiple family members shifted his focus to the children he still hd left, Mize decided to forego the stressful rigors of touring life. Nearly all of the interview subjects of the film, from writers to peers and all in between, identify this particular choice as the reason for Mize’s limited duration as a viable singer-songwriter mainstay.
Mize’s late-life attempt at a touring career was cut short by a stroke in the late 1990s that left him without his vocal faculties. Afterwards, Mize began the long journey back to basic conversation through speech therapy. In interviews for the film, he can piece together anecdotal sentences, albeit with the occasional need for subtitles. Although Mize has only regained a fraction of his speaking abilities, the conciseness of his storytelling helps add a profound element of silence to the retelling of moments that only need a handful of words. During his recounting of a failed pregnancy early in the days of his marriage as a young man, his woeful pronouncement of “Lost the baby” and the resultant sorrow in his tear-soaked eyes tells an even simpler, more profound tale than Hemingway’s legendary six-word story.
Made with respect and sincerity by a member of the Mize extended family (the first credit after the end of the film lists Saunders as “Billy’s Grandson”), it never strays from a by-the-book music figure doc, complete with an overview of the musical background. Saunders tracks the greater schism in the country music ranks between the Wonder-bread Nashville living room sound and the more raucous, rockabilly-tinged movement based in California. This blend of music history lesson and focused case study of one of its pioneers results in a film that could be easily offered on DVD along with Billy Mize’s Greatest Hits as a reward package for a public television station pledge drive.
While the film follows a basic chronology with Mize’s career and personal life, the movie’s biggest attempt at drama is the “will he or won’t he” suspense of playing at his 80th birthday celebration (at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace no less). Given how the events play out and the beautiful epilogue that follows, it retroactively seems like an unnecessary attempt to wring suspense out of what is otherwise a moment of recognition of the network of Mize devotees that have maintained their fervor, over 35 years since his last record.
Although Billy Mize may have had some crossover appeal in his heyday, the film might not resonate outside of those interested in the country music legacy it unspools. But “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” is like a Hall of Fame exhibit brought to life, chiefly a simple tribute to a singer-songwriter who was legendary in his own way. The film never reaches for something bigger, but that only seems fitting for a profile of a man content to forgo public, widespread acclaim for the sake of his family.
“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” premiered this past weekend at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.