Doc Fellow William J. Saunders on Chapstick, John Williams and ‘Calvin & Hobbes’

William J Saunders at 2015 LAFF

William J Saunders at 2015 LAFF

Twice a month in Consumed, our Film Independent Fellows take a break from creating to talk about their reading, watching, listening and sometimes even eating habits, and what informs their work as filmmakers.


At his most productive, 2012 Documentary Lab Fellow William J. Saunders will clear his calendar for a full month or two at a time and make documentaries guided by his film score of choice. Music, after all, seems to be a guiding force for the filmmakers; Saunders tends to choose whatever most appropriately captures the mood of the project he’s currently working on. His latest nonfiction series (made for, Coach Snoop, is about a Southern California youth football team coached by rap superstar Snoop Dogg; his Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound (which played at the 2014 LA Film Festival), is an intimate homage to his grandfather, an influential figure in the Central California country music scene.

We asked Saunders about his media consumption habits, and learned there’s more to the filmmakers than music and NPR podcasts—he also has a green thumb.


Saunders shooting "Dash Cunning"

Saunders shooting "Dash Cunning"

As a filmmaker who’s constantly making things, how much time do you actually have to consume the latest TV shows, films, music and podcasts?

I am constantly consuming stories. Sadly, I visit the movie theater only once or twice a month. But while I’m driving around Los Angeles I’m constantly listening to music on KCRW or podcasts or, if traffic is slow enough, streaming Netflix shows (Disclaimer: Film Independent does not recommend watching Netflix while operating a vehicle).

What’s the last TV show you watched a full season of?

I just finished binging Fargo season 2. Spoiler—there are aliens in it. And they confuse everyone.

What about the last movie you saw in the theater?

I saw Moonlight. I loved Mahershala Ali in it. Such an amazing performance.

What was the last movie you watched from your couch?

My friends and I have a Bad Movie Night. And last night we watched Can’t Buy Me Love, staring an early-20s Patrick Dempsey. It had every ‘80s trope you could hope for, including a very earnest and heart warming slow-clap scene.

Has a book or specific piece of source material ever inspired one of your projects?

Yes. I was obsessed with the Calvin and Hobbes comic book collections as a kid. For my graduate thesis project I wrote and directed a short film about a kid who uses his incredible imagination to take revenge on a bully. After I wrote it, I stepped back and realized the kid in the story was an awful lot like Calvin. So while it wasn’t a direct adaptation of Calvin and Hobbes it certainly inspired my thesis film, Dash Cunning.

Do you have any rituals when you write?

Self-loathing is a common ritual when I write. I also need to be completely focused on what I’m writing, which is hard to do when I’m juggling other projects that need attention. So clearing the calendar for a month or two is essential. I also keep a notebook to freestyle in. I spend a lot of time hand writing scattered bullet point notes before I make use of them in the script. But I’m also a documentary filmmaker, so I don’t really know what I’m doing.

What are some of your favorite scores to listen to when you’re writing/editing?

I use the music to guide whatever mood I’m writing. If it’s fun adventure, I’ll listen to John Williams ET. If it’s dark and dreamy, Yan Tiersen’s Amelie. Or I just let Spotify shuffle on a movie scores playlist and hit loop when I find a mood that fits.

What is your go-to guilty pleasure movie? What about it comforts or entertains you?

I’m a sucker for ‘80s horror movies. As a kid, my introduction to movies was through Friday the 13th Nightmare on Elm Street and Gremlins. I love those movies. And I still love watching them. Watching them now, I like seeing how clever the filmmakers were with practical effects. Joe Dante and Wes Craven were masters.

'Gremlins' (1984, Dir. Joe Dante)

'Gremlins' (1984, Dir. Joe Dante)

How do celebrate or reward yourself after you finish a project?

The mental wind down of being finished with a long project is reward in itself. And the excitement of deciding what’s next is always a treat. To decompress, I’ve discovered I love growing plants and maintaining their lives.

What do you listen to when you commute (specific music, podcasts, audibles or do you catch up on calls)?

Typically, I listen to NPR. But if a new podcast episode of Radio Lab or WTF [with Marc Maron] or the Moth Radio Hour or TED comes out, I’ll put that on. And my real guilty pleasure podcast is The Complete Guide to Everything. Tim and Tom. Great guys.

If a movie were made about your life, who would the soundtrack be by?

I think John Williams would add a nice juxtaposition to the mundane.

On the set of "Coach Snoop"

On the set of "Coach Snoop"

What is always in your bag/backpack on set?

Portable power bank to charge my phone, a protein bar and a small tube of Aquaphor. I’m addicted to chapstick. 

If you were stuck on a deserted island with one album, one book and one film what would they be?

If I’m on a deserted island and there is electricity and equipment to watch a movie and listen to music, then I’d probably want a book that has instructions for building a radio. Then I’d dismantle the DVD player and/or streaming server and build a communication device.

You can watch full episodes of Saunders’ AOL series Coach Snoop by clicking here. To learn about Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound click here.

To learn more about Film Independent’s myriad Artist Development programs, including Project Involve, please visit our website. To support our Fellows in all that they do, consider becoming a Member of Film Independent today.

Snoop Dogg Youth Football Series Coming to AOL in May

'Coach Snoop' follows the rapper as he works with members of a youth football program.

Snoop Dogg is taking his talents to the football field in a new docuseries for AOL. 

Coach Snoop premieres on May 19 on and will tell the story of the Snoop Youth Football League, which the rapper founded in 2005 to create opportunities for inner-city kids to participate in the sport. Snoop himself coaches a team of 11- and 12-year-olds and the series follows the team and its players over the course of a season. 

J-Roc, William J Saunders, Snoop Dogg (left to right)

J-Roc, William J Saunders, Snoop Dogg (left to right)

The series was first announced last fall and comes after Snoop has tried for years to get a project off the ground about his work with the SYFL. "This series will finally give the world a chance to witness the stories, talent and commitment SYFL represents in the same way I do," Snoop said in a statement when the project was first announced. 

Snoop will take the stage at AOL's May 3 NewFronts event in New York to promote the series through a performance that will livestream on and go90 at 8 p.m. ET. This year, the Verizon-owned media organization will take over four blocks around New York's South Street Seaport for an immersive NewFronts experience.

All nine episodes of Coach Snoop will be available at launch on AOL. The series was directed by Rory Karpf (30 for 30). It was produced by Lauren Karpf, William J Saunders, Jeff Cvitkovic and Rob Harvell and executive produced by Snoop, Ted Chung and Rory Karpf. 

Watch the trailer here:

From Bakersfield with Love - An Interview with William J Saunders

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By Steve Karras

Anticipating Waylon and Willie’s outlaw country by a decade-plus, the “Bakersfield sound” sprouted in of California in the 1950s as a raw twangy riposte to the slick, syrupy sounds being ladled out of Nashville. Before Buck Owens and Merle Haggard made the Bakersfield sound famous (and the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, and other country- and roots-influenced ’60s bands rocked it up), its seeds were carried west out of the Dust Bowl by Depression-era migrants, planted in Central Valley honky tonks, and nurtured by The Cousin Herb Henson Trading Post TV Show, which hit local airwaves in 1953 and featured a rich-voiced singer, guitarist, and songwriter named Billy Mize.

From his TV perch Mize helped launch the sound out of Bakersfield, and he remained a recording artist and West Coast radio and television personality into the 1980s. But his influence exceeded his fame, and his life was scarred by tragedy: two sons died young, and a stroke at age 59 robbed Mize of his ability to speak and sing. His life, his singular impact on country music, and his painstaking effort to regain his voice are chronicled in Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound, a music documentary that more than most deserves to be called a labor of love: director William J. Saunders is Mize’s grandson. After a lengthy festival run the film came out on DVD and VOD last month (and it screens this weekend at the Macon Film Festival in Georgia). This is an edited version of an interview with Saunders by Chicago-based freelance writer, filmmaker, and friend of MFW Steve Karras; click here to listen an uncut audio version, done for the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival.

Steve Karras: What you had done prior to making this documentary?

William J. Saunders: I used to work at NFL Films, that was kind of my first job out of undergraduate. I was a producer there, making football documentaries, off-the-field stuff – stories on fans, stuff like that. I’d always wanted to go into fiction, and to do that I ended up going to graduate school at Columbia University. I started this documentary while I was there, as something that I knew needed to be done and [that] I wanted to do, before these gentlemen were too old to be able to interview. Some of them were passing away at the time.

Where did you grow up?

I split time between San Diego and Kansas City. I went to high school in Kansas City, so I say I’m from there. I was never really a fan of country music, and Billy didn’t have his ability to speak most of when I was growing up, so I didn’t really know a whole lot about him or his musical influence, or the Bakersfield sound in general. It was all discovery for me.


You go into a project like this and you don’t anticipate what it’s going to do to you on an emotional level. At what point during the production were you having epiphanies? Did that start from the beginning?

It was the whole thing. It seemed to evolve really slowly, but it seemed like every step I took I uncovered something more interesting than the last. I guess that’s really good if your making a film [laughs]. I didn’t know much, you know? As I was growing up, there wasn’t the access of the internet. There wasn’t a lot of information readily available on this subject, and there hasn’t been a lot written on it. There’s been one TV documentary, for PBS, I think, which came out ’95 or something. I really had to look to find that one. So every time I learned a little bit more about Billy’s life, a little bit more about the Bakersfield sound, it kept getting more and more exciting.

Did you notice doors opening up a little quicker because of his reputation preceding him?

Yeah. You know, obviously I had heard that Billy, my grandfather, had some ties to Merle Haggard. I didn’t realize how deep that went. I found out when I just put in the request to interview him and it happened right away. Merle was more than gracious in helping out. And talking to people like Willie Nelson and Ray Price about my grandfather and them just praising him – it was really incredible. I thought a lot about the fact that I was his grandson interviewing these guys and maybe they’re just sugarcoating stuff because I’m his relative. I tried to make sure that didn’t happen by prefacing things with, “I need to know the full story of Billy Mize, please tell me the truth as you know it and stick to that. I want to know all about the guy.” But people just continued to tell me these fantastic things about him – how great a person he was, how charismatic, how wonderful a musician he was. There’s really not a lot of bad stuff to say about Billy Mize.

What can you tell me about the difference between the Nashville country sound and theBakersfield sound? It’s almost like a different American experience.

Everyone has, and I’m sure you do too, a different understanding of what that is. Everybody I asked had a different answer. My conclusion is that it’s just a label that was put on these individual musicians that shook the cage a little bit in country music – Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Billy Mize, and those guys who came out of that scene. They were all playing different types of music. You would say Billy Mize is part of the Bakersfield sound, and literally he was, but he wasn’t playing that Buck Owens-style music. He sang very smooth, more like the Nashville country that was more popular in his time. People say there’s a literal meaning of the Bakersfield sound, they know it when they hear it. I really just think it’s a label that’s been put on those individuals that rebelled against the Nashville sound.

There were a lot of great verite moments in your film about your grandfather. I was thinking about Albert Maysles’s style. Were you a fan of that direct cinema approach?

I am. It’s obviously all subjective, and I do have my opinions, but I do think documentaries are at their best when they are documenting. I’m not a big fan – I mean, I’ll watch a documentary that’s all about re-creations, people talking about the past or something, those are interesting and those have a place. But I’m more interested in documentaries that are unfolding as we watch them. I couldn’t do that in a lot of places with this documentary, obviously. It was really important to me to get all of that archive footage, and a lot of it is being shown for the first time in this documentary – some of the Cousin Herb stuff and The Billy Mize Show, some of his other TV. [But] I was very aware of those verite moments and wanted, as much as I could to put all of those in.

Beyond his general accessibility because of you being related, did it take him a while to warm up to you making this film?

Joe Headshot.png

Not at all. He was on board right away. I think he was a little flattered that I wanted to make this piece on him. I don’t think he realized how long I would be working on it [laughs], or the extent to which I would go to research it. And there’s a lot of his personal life that comes out in this documentary, and I don’t think he understood that that was going to be just as important as far as the story was concerned as the rest of it. When we started talking about the more sensitive issues, tragedies that happened in his life, he pulled back sometimes and doesn’t talk about a lot of it. But he was always very willing. He’d always say, “Whatever you need.”

Are you a country music fan now?

I’m a fan of that music. One of the guys I interviewed for the documentary, Scott Bomar, just produced an album called The Other Side Of Bakersfield, a collection of Bakersfield B-sides, and and it is great. You can really kind of see what the barroom was like with this kind of music – real raw, just a few musicians pumping out some dance music. I’m a huge fan of that stuff.

By Steve Karras

For the Country Record

Sometimes legends get lost in the annals of time, still legendary to those in the know, but increasingly forgotten within mass popular culture. ‘Billy Mize and The Bakersfield Sound’ aims to change that for its subject, a principle performer and television personality in an acclaimed era of country music. Billy Mize was born in Kansas during the Great Depression, and like many other families, they were forced to migrate to Bakersfield, California, in search of jobs. This migration found many different styles of music from varying states culminating in one small area, and Billy Mize became a founding member of what would become to be known The Bakersfield Sound.

This feature-length documentary film, directed by Joe Saunders, begins on the cusp of Billy’s 80th birthday, back in April 2009. There is to be a tribute show on his birthday by friends, peers and more, and we find him reflective but in high spirits. It is clear from the outset that Billy has problems speaking; we later discover that it’s due to a very bad stroke he suffered during the mid-1990s, the culmination of a drinking problem following many years of hardship.

Although this documentary goes into depth on what Billy, and his ex-wife Martha, overcame in life (including the loss of two sons at the prime of his career), it also is an extremely informative answer to the question of “Who is Billy Mize?” With interviews from many of the pioneers of the time, including Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price, we find ourselves taken back in time to the beginnings of Billy’s career and how he became the legend that he is. Filled with countless songs and performances (the credit list took over a minute to list them all), amazing insights into the scene and how it impacted country music as a whole, as well as rare footage and commentary from Billy himself, this is a fantastic look into the life of the man who should have been bigger than Buck Owens.

Watching this movie was fascinating, entertaining, heartwarming and a little heartbreaking too. Around 90 minutes in length, I would happily watch it again and again, which is not something I can say about a lot of films. Currently you can purchase the DVD, which has special features, or you can host a screening of the film at your local theater or community venue. Click here for more details.

It’s no surprise that this movie has had critics enthralled at festivals all over, so be sure not to miss this great addition to your collection of country music in film.

Billy Mize Compelling

BY JENNIFER SELF The Bakersfield Californian

The temptation to liken the life of Billy Mize to one of the melancholy country songs he wrote is a potent one -- except that no one would ever write anything so damned sad.

Unthinkable family tragedies, one after another, medical setbacks and a stroke that prematurely ended his career offer a pretty compelling case that Mize just may be the biblical Job of country music.

Filmmaker Joe Saunders reports he's just signed a deal with a company called Cintic to distribute the movie. "It looks like we'll be distributed digitally via Film Buff (its sister company) who will put us on all digital platforms in early 2015," Saunders wrote in an email. "And they are out looking for TV opportunities, etc."

Saunders, who will be at the Fox screening, reports that though Billy Mize won't be present, his brother, Buddy Mize, who provides insightful commentary throughout the movie, will attend.

"It's got to be hell to be a singer and one day you've lost it all and you still know that," reflects Buddy Mize in a film about his brother. "You still have the mind and you know the singing, but it doesn't happen anymore."

How is it then that "Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound," a documentary made with obvious love by the performer's grandson, is anything but gloomy? Bittersweet, yes, but the emphasis is more on the sweet than the bitter.

The film, which had its Bakersfield premiere in September before a packed house and affectionate audience at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, will be screened Friday at the Outside the Box Bakersfield Film Festival.

Filmmaker Joe Saunders conducted more than a dozen interviews with music historians and Mize's friends, family and fans, including legends of the genre like Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Merle Haggard, the biggest star to come out of Bakersfield, who owes his first television appearance -- a snippet of which appears in the film -- to Mize.

Haggard, especially, is effective in getting across the central theme of this character study: Billy Mize might have been a superstar if not for his decision to forgo the all-consuming pursuit of fame for a stable home life with his family.

"Billy Mize is this incredibly talented, multifaceted, good-looking guy that probably should have been a star, a big star," singer/songwriter Dave Alvin says in the film.

But Mize, 85, did manage to stand out in Bakersfield, and that was no small accomplishment. It seems impossible that the southern valley of the 1950s and '60s, full of cotton pickers by day/guitar pickers by night, should have been a capital of country music. But as the captivating images and performance clips in the film make plain, the town was jumping -- There's Bill Woods at the Blackboard! It's that kid Buck Owens at the Lucky Spot!

It's in these moments that the film soars, reminding fans who didn't realize they needed reminding that this vital music does not belong behind museum glass, spoken about in hushed, reverent tones. The music is as fresh and bracing as it was 50 years ago, a loud and vital alternative to the snoozefest that was -- and is -- Nashville.

These handsome mischief-makers, with their pompadours, wicked grins and talent to spare were every bit as exciting and dangerous as their rock contemporaries. And Billy Mize? He was the most Elvis-like of them all.

"Billy was a handsome kind of cat," Ray Price observes in the film. "I'm sure he didn't have any problems with women. In fact, that probably was his problem."

One woman he couldn't get enough of was wife Martha, who caught his eye on the school bus when they were children. Each appears to be the other's biggest admirer in spite of their divorce decades ago. In fact, some of the film's best insights come from Mize's ex, not to mention most of the laughs -- and there are many, courtesy of wits like Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford and Mize himself.

An exchange between the couple that drew hoots at the Palace came after a story Buddy Mize tells about his brother breaking into music at the Lucky Spot, though he was still too young to work at a bar. The venue got around the problem by hiring Buddy and Billy's mother as a bouncer:

Billy: "My mother said don't drink."

Interviewer: "Did you?"

Billy and Martha: "No, no."

Martha: (waiting a beat) "I did."

Martha also offers the perfect scene-setter for how rough and tumble those old honky-tonks could get:

"The very first night I was there, one of the band members' wives put a customer's head down the toilet in the ladies' room and I was horrified. Absolutely horrified. Because I thought we were just going to go to the ladies' room like little ladies."

Yet even in the barroom bedlam and later, when he was host of a succession of Bakersfield and Los Angeles television programs, Mize was able to maintain a depth and gentleness that set him apart.

"I didn't talk to anybody about Billy that didn't like him. Not one," Bakersfield Sound author Gerald Haslam says in the film.

"I talked to a lot of people that didn't like Buck. But everybody liked Billy."

Much of that admiration can be traced to the grace with which Mize has handled the tragedies that have befallen him, paticularly the death of both of his sons, and his health problems. The film starts and ends with Mize's struggle to recover his speech, his frustration palpable.

"I know what I want to say, but I can't talk."

But this is not a film about the indignities and injustices of old age. Mize's resilience is the takeaway, and nowhere is his strength more evident than in the film's closing moments -- which won't be revealed here. It will get you dancing in your seat even as it pierces your heart.

Coming to a Palace near you: The Billy Mize film

BY JENNIFER SELF Californian lifestyles editor

The film had its world premiere in Los Angeles, but "Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound" finally comes home on Sept. 18, to a venue that doesn't get more Bakersfield Sound-ified: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.

"Now it's finally going to be played for the people who helped make it," said filmmaker Joe Saunders, the grandson of Mize, a country music performer and television personality who, decades ago, joined Owens, Merle Haggard and their contemporaries in creating a raw and thoroughly original hybrid of rockabilly and honky-tonk that made the city famous.

"I met my grandfather as an adult -- not literally -- but I've learned so much more about him as an adult and have a deeper understanding and respect for him," said Saunders, 35, a Los Angeles filmmaker.

The festivities kick off at 6 p.m. with, naturally, a little Bakersfield Sound music, courtesy of Tommy Hays and other local trailblazers of the 1950s and '60s. The screening follows, at around 7 or 7:30.

Saunders hopes his grandfather will be able to attend, but a recent fall broke a vertebra in Mize's back "and he's kind of been immobile." The filmmaker's mother and aunt -- Mize's daughters -- are expected, and Saunders has invited several Bakersfield Sound players, like Red Simpson and Bobby Durham.

One local cheering section he's counting on are the eight to 10 fans who -- clad in Bakersfield Sound T-shirts -- attended the film's June premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The spirited crew brought a welcome blast of Bakersfield to the theater, whose audience consisted mostly of Angelenos.

"They had trouble getting us out of the theater because so many people wanted to come down and give appreciation to me," Saunders recalled. "So they had to kick us out."

The culmination of six years of work and financial sacrifice, the film played before a sold-out crowd of 300.

"I was a bit nervous," the filmmaker said. "The moderator called me up and I thanked everyone for coming. That was a very exciting moment for me. I don't think I've played a film of mine in a theater that big."

Enter the Crystal Palace, which seats 500, give or take. Buckaroo band leader Jim Shaw, who helped Saunders "immensely" with his expertise and contacts in the music licensing field, offered up the venue.

"Jim saw the movie and was really affected by it," Saunders said. "I know the Crystal Palace isn't necessarily built for a screening like this, but it seems like such a great place to show it. I know they have a good audio system, which is an important part of watching the movie."

Though music is essential in any discussion of the Bakersfield Sound, the film's true focus is on Mize, the man.

The popular recording artist and television host has suffered many tragedies in his life -- the death of his two sons and a debilitating stroke -- but never grew bitter.

"There are so many different threads in this movie," Saunders said. "You're going to see how a man makes choices in life that really determine the outcome of his career. Some of those might be the sacrifice of a family life and some are a sacrifice of fame, and Billy's was the latter.

"But if you want to talk about the Bakersfield Sound, I think you're going to learn how that music changed the industry, how something like that can get started in such an out-of-the-way place as Bakersfield -- and I mean that in the nicest possible way."

If fans miss next week's Bakersfield screening, they could be out of luck, at least for now. A distribution deal has yet to materialize, though that's not uncommon for a small documentary film like this one, Saunders said.

"If this could get an actual theatrical release, that would be great," the filmmaker said. "It's possible to do that with some new companies out there that help smaller movies get distributed theatrically.

"Or we could have it go straight to digital, iTunes and Netflix. Maybe PBS? That would be great because that's our demographic anyway, and there's more eyes that way."

After the Bakersfield screening, the film continues on the festival circuit, landing in Dallas next month. Saunders is relying on word of mouth and positive reviews to keep the momentum going. But it's really only one review that matters much to him: his grandfather's:

"He saw the final version of the film. He's kind of tired of watching it," Saunders said with a laugh. "He's seen so many versions now. He loves it. He's always very positive."

Reviews for 'Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound'

Los Angeles Daily News: "(The) documentary 'Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound' is the loving tribute you would expect, but is also, quite happily, a damn fine piece of filmmaking. Treasure troves of rare footage and recordings are deployed to tell the exuberant Mize's sometimes tragic story and give us a comprehensive history of the music scene that challenged Nashville's dull dominance in the 1950s, '60s and beyond."

The Hollywood Reporter: "Using a standard doc format that combines archival material with new talking-head interviews and verite footage, director William J. Saunders has made an intimate and well-researched homage that explores the mysterious alchemy of stardom and the choices and happenstance that can make or break it. Though the filmmaker is Mize's grandson -- a relationship that's revealed only in the closing credits -- the film is no hagiography. It is, however, filled with admirers, among them musicians Haggard, Willie Nelson, an exceptionally insightful Dave Alvin and the late Ray Price."



Billy MIZE & The Bakersfield Sound

History is sometimes told by outsiders, sometimes by insiders and sometimes by someone simply very interested in the facts, in this case: it's a little of each. Billy MIZE and The Bakersfield Sound is a New Documentary that tells the story of California's forgotten history. We have got a lot of those around this Golden State. So very much has happened out here in The West. William J. Saunders steps up to tell the story of his Grandfather,
songwriter and musician, Mr. Billy Mize. A local legend of sorts for anyone living in the middle of California in the 1950's & 1960's. Billy Mize was a big part of what is now commonly called, 'The Bakersfield Sound'. An offshoot of Country Western Music with its own Rock - a - Billy bar room blend of hard driving guitar, rough edged rhythm and wide audience appeal that to this today is influential to musicians such as Dave Alvin, who
appears in this film to help tell the story. So too does Merle Haggard and a host of people who were there or highly influenced by the music that was created during that time. A hard driving, hard working community of people whom many migrated to California during The Great Depression ala John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and settled into middle California
seeking employment in Agriculture.

" This is a Patchwork Quilt of a Film that is Truly American in its Creation. "

Billy Mize and his pals had to actually establish the Academy of Country Western Music to chime in and recognize each other and their contemporaries out West. Artists such as Elvis, Dean Martin, Barbara Mandrell and others are sited as influenced and impressed by The Bakersfield Scene. Billy Mize, looked after new talent, collaborated, produced and performed with the likes of folks such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who would go on to prosperous profits and notoriety while Billy, sometimes, did not. This documentary
elliptically raises the question: What is Success ? Is it a top ten hit or is it a happy marriage or is it simply being satisfied with the things you have done ? Ask that question to three different people and you will get three different answers. This film allows each viewer to decide for themselves that answer and meanwhile we learn much about the center of
California, The Music of Bakersfield and the career(s) of a whole group of people that clearly deserve our recognition. This is a patchwork quilt of a film that is truly American in its creation.

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The Hollywood Reporter Review of the Billy Mize Doc

A filmmaker profiles his grandfather, one of country music’s leading lights of the ’50s and ’60s, and the influential Central California honky-tonk scene that he helped to build.

He lent his guitar to Buck Owens when the newcomer was auditioning for a club. Merle Haggard’s first TV appearance was on his show. Waylon JenningsBarbara Mandrell and Dean Martin, among many others, covered his songs. And no less a trendsetter than Elvis copied his sartorial style. Though he’s no household name, Billy Mize is a key figure in country music, and an affectionate documentary portrait shows that he had it all — smooth-as-silk voice, songwriting talent and good looks. But as Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound details, a series of exceedingly challenging personal setbacks put his career on a lower-altitude trajectory than anyone would have predicted.

Using a standard doc format that combines archival material with new talking-head interviews and vérité footage, directorWilliam J. Saunders has made an intimate and well-researched homage that explores the mysterious alchemy of stardom and the choices and happenstance that can make or break it. Though the filmmaker is Mize’s grandson — a relationship that’s revealed only in the closing credits — the film is no hagiography.

It is, however, filled with admirers, among them musicians Haggard, Willie Nelson, an exceptionally insightful Dave Alvin and the late Ray Price. After its world premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, the movie is sure to book more festival gigs. It could prove a smart theatrical pickup, too, drawing ovations for a tremendously likable central figure and his story of remarkable resilience, as well as its celebration of ever-popular Americana and roots music.

Given Saunders’ personal connection to his subject, it’s natural that his chief interest is the man rather than the titular sound. The engrossing movie presents a creditable capsule history of Bakersfield’s day in the pop-culture sun, and offers ample evidence of Mize’s gifts as a performer and crafter of songs. Still, it would have been nice to see more than one of his numbers in its entirety.

That full-song clip is a TV performance of Don Gibson’s “A Legend in My Time” — delivered with the understated emotion and apparent effortlessness that characterize all Mize’s shows and recordings excerpted in the film. The opening line, “If heartache brought fame,” is as apt a lead-in to his story as any.

Though he never stopped working — until his debilitating stroke at age 59 — Mize chose to focus on TV and local shows rather than the road in order to be with his family. In a pre-Internet age, when touring was essential to promotion, it was a crucial decision. Two key factors fueled it: the formative experience of being abandoned by his “rounder” of a biological father, and the miscarriage that his wife, Martha, suffered while he was on tour. More devastation was in store for the couple — all of it, unfortunately, emphasized with the movie’s heavily melodramatic score rather than by foregrounding more of Mize’s music.

With his stylistic versatility and much-covered gems such as “Who Will Buy the Wine” and “Don’t Let the Blues Make You Bad” under his songwriting belt, Mize became a major regional star, and was a founding figure in the Bakersfield music scene. Through well-chosen stills and the commentary of musicians and historians, Saunders traces the Central Valley city’s Dust Bowl roots and the thriving culture of honky-tonks that sprang up around its agriculture and oil industries.

The film also argues convincingly that compared with Nashville’s “official” country industry, Bakersfield’s rougher, more eclectic sound, with its strong component of Western swing, has had a more far-reaching impact. Long synonymous with Owens and Haggard, Bakersfield was, in the ’50s and ’60s, a wellspring of hitmakers.

National fame eluded Mize, and his career was cut short by the stroke that left him unable to speak, let alone sing. But during that Bakersfield heyday, he hosted a small slew of shows in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. Based on the evidence provided, he had the telegenic qualities of a wholesome Johnny Carson. The Academy of Country Music named him TV Personality of the Year three times in the mid-’60s.

The film’s present-day action revolves around an 80th birthday tribute concert in 2009, and Mize himself is a compelling interview subject. He speaks haltingly, having embarked on an intensive course of therapy, his spirit and resolve impressing even his speech pathologists. His humor and grit are evident in his brief but forceful answers. His silences speak volumes, too. So does the fact that Martha, no longer his wife, is still his good friend and sits beside him for an interview in the film.


Production companies: Old City Entertainment in association with the Country Music Hall of Fame
With: Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Dave Alvin, Cliff Crofford, Willie Nelson, Ray Price
Director: William J. Saunders
Producer: William J. Saunders
Executive producers: Josh Ayers, Jesse Cuevas
Director of photography: Michael Louis Hill
Editors: David Nordstrom, Morgan R. Stiff, Jeff Cvitkovic
Composer: Amy Baer

No rating, 101 minutes



Documentary Recalls Billy Mize, and When Los Angeles Rivaled Nashville


New York Times

MAY 25, 2014

    LOS ANGELES — Even the vinyl addicts among us have to dig deep for Billy Mize.

    Scratching past Wynn Stewart’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” and the Jean Shepard and Buck Owens albums, I still couldn’t find a copy of Mize master sessions like “Please Don’t Let the Blues Make You Bad,” from Columbia Records in 1965. But there he was, sure enough, with the writer’s credit for “Who’ll Buy the Wine,” on Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am” album.

    Once Mr. Mize was well known here as the Bakersfield, Calif., singer-songwriter who did more than almost any other to challenge Nashville’s dominance of the country music scene.

    In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Mize brought Bakersfield’s raucous, honky-tonk sound to his series of regional television shows, which helped make Mr. Haggard and others far more famous than he himself ever became.

    Sometimes, Mr. Mize played backup instruments on albums like Mr. Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”

    But on June 14, he will be recalled at the Los Angeles Film Festival for what he really was — a superstar who was only fully recognized by his fellow stars. The influence of Mr. Mize, now 85, is explored in the William J. Saunders film “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound,” which will then begin screening in the festival’s documentary competition.

    The Mize film will be competing with, among others, “Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story,” about a half-forgotten jazz saxophonist who spent much of his semi-lost career in prison.

    While the festival focuses on neglected musical genius, Warner Bros. is dipping into musical biography with “Jersey Boys,” about the Four Seasons, which is set for release on June 20 (with a Los Angeles Film Festival screening the day before), and Universal is getting ready for “Get On Up,” a James Brown biopic due in theaters on Aug. 1.

    After a bit of a hiatus, when music biography had seemed to disappear from screens, the movies are clearly getting musical again.

    Big Charlie's Saloon

    Pulbished by Yahoo Sports 9/18/13


    The subject of William J Saunders EMMY award winning documentary is back in the news.  Enjoy! 

    Big Charlies.jpg

    PHILADELPHIA – Deep in a thicket of South Philly row houses where 11th meets McKean, and the butchers, barbers and grocery men still keep their grandfather's shops, there stands a most unusual corner football bar called Big Charlie's Saloon.

    From the outside there is little to separate Big Charlie's from the dozens of other corner football bars in South Philly. It has the same brown brick facade and oversized square sign above the awning. But look close and notice the absence of the requisite Philadelphia Eagles, whose gleaming stadium is but a mile away. Big Charlie's doesn't run gameday bus and keg trips to Eagles games. You won't find wings on the walls or the local football team on Big Charlie's flat screen TVs.

    From left, Domenick Berardi Jr., Paul Staico and Michael Puggi are die-hard Chiefs fans in the unlikeliest spot. …

    Because if you walk into Big Charlie's on a football Sunday and meet the cold, probing glares that greet strangers, you better say you are there to see the Kansas City Chiefs or you'll probably want to leave.

    None of the traditional reasons explain why a Kansas City Chiefs bar exists in the grumble of South Philly. Paul Staico, the bar's owner, is not from Missouri. He grew up a few blocks away on Hutchinson Street which runs between 9th and 10th. The bar originally belonged to his father, Big Charlie, who had no real affinity for anything Kansas City or anything Chiefs. Nor is Staico one of these people who grew up hating the Eagles and wanted to cheer for another team.

    Rather, this is about a bike. A Huffy bike. The kind a 4-year-old Paul dearly wanted in the winter of 1970 when Big Charlie threw down a hefty bet on that year's Super Bowl. Big Charlie promised Paul he would buy him the bike if his big bet came through. Then when it did and the Huffy bike was his, Paul made a promise too. He would love the Kansas City Chiefs.

    "After that, all my presents from my mother and my sister and my friends, they all gave me Chiefs stuff," Staico says.

    His friend Domenick Berardi Jr. laughs.

    [Play fantasy football on the go: Real-time scoring and more on iPhone and Android]

    "The funny part is how he actually acts surprised when he gets Chiefs stuff," he says. " 'Oh wow my 400th Chiefs mug.' "

    The men laugh. They are sitting in the back bar at Big Charlie's, which is more a shrine to their team than a serviceable drinking place. The walls are filled with Chiefs photos, a Chiefs logo is painted on the floor, a row of Chiefs helmets dangle from hooks. In South Philly, where folks debate daily the fate of their "Iggles," it is a most improbable sight.

    Staico looks exactly how you would think a Paul Staico from South Philly would look, wearing a sleeveless Chiefs T-shirt with giant tattooed arms and a booming voice. Berardi, smaller and quieter, wears a Chiefs golf shirt and Chiefs cap. They are "family" as Staico likes to say. For instance, Berardi is his brother and Michael Puggi, who is sitting against the wall wearing a red cap, is his cousin even though none of the men are related.

    Paul Staico shows of his ink and loyalty. (Y Sports)

    "Our home away from home," Puggi says.

    This is an important week for Big Charlie's. People have been calling the only Kansas City Chiefs bar in South Philly because the Chiefs are coming to play the Eagles on Thursday night. And that means Andy Reid, who took the Eagles to five NFC championship games and a Super Bowl in his 14 years as coach of the Eagles, is coming back as the head of the Chiefs.

    At Big Charlie's this qualifies as a really big game, which means Staico will have a cookout outside and as many as 70 Chiefs fans will pile into the bar to watch the game. They're going to block off the street and the NFL Network will broadcast some of its pregame show from the sidewalk out front.

    The men at Big Charlie's seem delighted that Reid is their coach. While they didn't watch Eagles games much during his time in Philadelphia, they know enough about his success with the Eagles. It would be impossible to live in South Philly and not understand this. They talk vaguely about the Chiefs moving "in the right direction." Still, even with this optimism, they say little about Reid and his return.

    The most any of them say comes from Puggi who thinks Reid was: "A really good coach [for the Eagles] but the last couple of years he looked burned out."

    [Watch: Big questions about former Eagles' big night]

    Big Charlie's has gained fame over the years as the Chiefs place in the most rabid of Eagles neighborhoods. The Chiefs have a wide and passionate following in the Midwest and the story of Big Charlie's has made its way to Kansas City, where Staico, Berardi and Puggi are treated like mini celebrities when they make their yearly pilgrimage to Arrowhead Stadium to watch their beloved team up close.

    Several years ago, when Dick Vermeil went to Kansas City to coach the Chiefs, Joe Saunders, the son of Vermeil's offensive coordinator, Al Saunders, landed a job at NFL Films. Looking for a place to watch his father's team play, Saunders drifted into Big Charlie's. In a return visit, he brought a crew from NFL Films. Big Charlie's had to be shared. He even arranged for Vermeil to magically appear to the delight of the people gathered in the bar. The resulting video won an Emmy, a copy of which Staico proudly displays as a memory of the day his bar went Hollywood.

    Derrick Thomas, the great Chiefs linebacker who is one of Staico's favorite players, once sat in Big Charlie's back bar. When Rich Gannon, who was raised in Philadelphia, was the Chiefs quarterback, his family watched the games from Big Charlie's. Gannon's father, Jim, enjoyed Big Charlie's so much he was criticized on local radio for not attending a Chiefs-Eagles game his son played in 1998 to watch it at Big Charlie's instead.

    But no one from the Chiefs may have made a bigger impact at Big Charlie's than the recently fired general manager Scott Pioli, who visited in 2009 when the Chiefs came to play the Eagles. Pioli walked into the bar, flanked by two beefy team security men, and was immediately touched. He later told Staico that he called his mother after the visit to say he had been to a place that reminded him of his old neighborhood.

    When Staico's mother, Millie, died last fall – Staico remembers the date (Oct. 28), a day the Chiefs played the Raiders – Pioli heard of her death and sent flowers.

    "He's a gentleman," Berardi says of Pioli. "Classy. Very respectful man."

    Which appears to be a big reason why the men at Big Charlie's don't celebrate Reid publicly. They want to be respectful to the general manager who had been good to them.

    It's hard to understand how a group of men from the same Italian neighborhood in South Philly became fans of a football team halfway across the country. The best way Staico puts it: "All our friends converted." He goes on to say that a few of the people he knew growing up, whether it was at the playground or school, were not Eagles fans. They were looking for a new team. Thanks to his Huffy bike, Staico had a team. One by one, he dragged them over to the Chiefs.

    Staico is clearly the leader. He booms through the bar in camouflage pants and that sleeveless Chiefs shirt. He shouts when he talks. And though his voice is a rumble, he can be soulful. He asks people about their lives and he seems interested in their answers. It's easy to see how if he picked the Kansas City Chiefs to be his team the others would follow. And if he wanted his bar to be a Chiefs bar, who was going to question him?

    In the beginning, Big Charlie's wasn't a Chiefs bar. In fact, Staico kept his Chiefs passion confined to his parents' house, where he watched games that he pulled down on a rooftop satellite dish. It wasn't until Big Charlie died of a heart attack in 1983 that Staico began converting the place into a Chiefs haven. At first it was tough. In a pre-Sunday Ticket world he had to get a dish installed on Big Charlie's roof. Then he had to hope he could find a feed from some station in Denver or Des Moines that had been left unscrambled by the networks.

    "It would take hours and hours," Staico says. "We were sweating it out."

    Even after they found a game on the satellite they couldn't always keep it on, especially on windy days. For one particularly big Chiefs game against the Raiders in 1989, Marty Schottenheimer's first year as coach, they promised a neighborhood kid named Vinnie a bottle of Jack Daniels if he stood on the roof in a rainstorm and held the dish in place. The Jack Daniels proved irresistible and the game was on. Though every once in awhile Vinnie's grip slipped and someone had to go outside and shout: "A little to the left" or "A little to the right."

    There are also strict rules, one of the biggest being that Big Charlie's does not play music during a Chiefs game. Doing so is a sin. But nonetheless, as the Chiefs built a big lead in a game, Puggi couldn't help himself. He wanted to dance so he turned on the jukebox. Almost immediately the Chiefs collapsed, eventually losing the game they were certain to win. Staico and the rest of the Big Charlie's crowd knew exactly who to blame.

    The next week they banished Puggi from the bar. It was raining, much like the day Vinnie stood on the roof holding the satellite dish, but a banishment was a banishment. They put a chair outside and handed Puggi a pair of binoculars. Every few minutes someone opened the door and allowed Puggi a glimpse of the TV.

    Nobody thought it a heartless punishment. Not for costing the Chiefs a game.

    "I gave him an umbrella at halftime," Berardi says.

    [Related: Will Philly fans cheer Andy Reid when he returns?]

    The men claim to have photos of Puggi in the chair, yet when asked to produce them they get vague. They can't find them, they say, leaving one to wonder if it really happened or is part of a bar's legend that has become a spectacle in itself.

    One thing Staico is serious about is violence. He won't tolerate it. Thanks to a certain contingent of fans at Eagles games, Philadelphia has a roguish reputation. Staico hates this. His bar might be in South Philly and South Philly can have its rough edges, but a great source of pride for Staico is that Big Charlie's has never had a fight in its four decades of existence. He wants to keep it that way.

    Part of the reason for this is that it's a neighborhood place where people of all ages come. Among the regulars are people in their 70s who have been venturing to the bar back when it was under Big Charlie's rule and didn't have a single picture of a Kansas City Chief. At the hint of a dispute, the combatants are led outside and told to go elsewhere.

    "If you act a certain way you're in the minority," Staico says. "You can't act like that in here. There are women in here. Elderly. Look, it's no romper room, believe me. But you will be asked to leave."

    The NFL Network is scheduled to make a stop at Big Charlie's on Thursday, when the Eagles host the Chiefs.

    And nobody wants to leave. If you are going to go to the trouble to live in South Philly and love the Kansas City Chiefs you are not going to get tossed from the only place that will take you in.

    Where else are you going to find a place like Big Charlie's? Where else will you have a glass cabinet filled with Chiefs photos, mugs and bobbleheads? Where else will you find a giant photograph of Arrowhead Stadium on the wall and team logos on the bar stools? Where else does a piece of the Midwest wind up in the land of the Eagles?

    Staico smiles and looks around his kingdom of Chiefs red and gold.

    "You know it was never meant to be anything more than it was," he says with a hint of wonder in his voice. "Now it's taken off."

    All of this for a bet and a Huffy bike.