A literary drama starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson set in New Orleans should have worked. Lions Gate Films was so optimistic about A Love Song for Bobby Long that it rushed it into selected theaters in time to qualify for Academy Award consideration. (For Gambit Weekly's review, see 'Overlong Song,' March 8.) But when Jeffrey Bruner of the Des Moines Register handicapped Oscar hopefuls for a Best Actress nomination a mere month after the film's release, he wrote, 'Scarlett Johansson is an up-and-coming star, but A Love Song for Bobby Long is off everyone's radar.' What happened?
Hollywood blew into singer-songwriter Grayson Capps' life in the mid-1990s in the form of Shainee Gabel, a young documentary filmmaker working on a movie called Anthem with partner Kristin Hahn. When she saw Capps perform at the Maple Leaf with Stavin' Chain, she asked him to record the soundtrack.
While working on Anthem, Gabel expressed an interest in making a movie here. Capps showed her his father Ronald Everette Capps' then-unpublished novel manuscript, Off Magazine Street, and she was hooked. The book was based on Bobby Long, who taught high school with Grayson's father in Brewton, Ala.
'The muses were out for these guys,' Capps says over coffee. 'To see them enjoying music, literature and art and wine -- to see that in my formative years became a magical thing. And he was larger than life.'
The novel -- now published by McAdam/Cage -- is fiction, placing Long in Grayson's milieu -- a small row of houses in Jefferson between the levee and the Mississippi River. Gabel found the combination irresistible. 'She fell in love with the book and she fell in love with my lifestyle at South Front Street where I was living,' Grayson says. She adapted the unpublished manuscript for the screen, then took the title of one of Grayson's songs -- 'A Love Song for Bobby Long' -- for the film since it echoed T.S. Eliot's 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' For the next three years, Grayson says, the movie was 'about to happen, about to happen, about to happen.'
In spring 2003, Gabel called and said filming was starting that July. 'By that time, I was so jaded with the thing,' Capps says. ''Yeah, whatever. Who's playing Bobby Long?'' Grayson says. 'She told me John Travolta, and I was like, 'Damn, this is real.''
Grayson appears in the movie as a musician, playing in the neighborhood bar and in a climactic scene on a levee when Travolta dances with Johansson. 'The whole movie is leading up to this one scene,' Grayson says. 'I asked, 'Who's writing the song?' Shainee said, 'You are.''
Theresa Andersson performs 'Lorraine's Song,' in the movie, and the song earned Capps consideration for an Oscar. A preliminary list of nominees for Best Song included Capps, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt, Wilco, Robbie Robertson and Randy Newman. When the list was down to the five finalists, he was left out along with Jagger and Newman. The award went to Jorge Drexler for 'Al Otro Lado Del Río' from The Motorcycle Diaries.
During the filming, Capps was often on set, trying to keep things true to his memory of these people. 'There's one spot where Travolta says, 'something something Tuberville'' -- pronounced Tooberville -- ''lived up the street,'' Capps says. 'They cut and I walked up to him and said, 'Look man, there are no 'Toobervilles' in Alabama; they're all 'Tubbervilles. Nobody's going to believe you in the entire South if you say, 'Tooberville.' Trust me.''
After the shooting wrapped, Capps and Andersson were flown to Hollywood for the premiere, an experience he can only describe as 'surreal.'
'They sweep you along,' he says. ''Here's your limo, here's your scotch. Get out here, walk here, talk to this person here, you talk to this person here.' Everybody's been lectured on who we are, so everybody knows who I am and what my influence is.' Once inside, he called his dad from the balcony to tell him the theater was the one Casablanca debuted in.
After the premiere, Capps and Andersson performed at a party at Spago. When Scarlett Johansson introduced Capps, she announced, 'He's f--king awesome.'
Carina Chocano of The Los Angeles Times reviewed the movie warmly, writing, 'A lovely noble rot pervades the film in much the same way that it does the city, a longtime repository of lost-cause romanticism. If there's something a little bit moldy about the setup (drunken literary types, hope on the doorstep, healing from beyond the grave), the movie is no less charming or involving for it, and it's no less pleasant to succumb to its wayward allure and wastrel lyricism.'
Almost all of the critics found Elliot Davis's cinematography lushly beautiful, but a more typical response was Stephen Holden of The New York Times, who reviewed A Love Song for Bobby Long, saying, 'The movie is another example of Hollywood's going soft and squishy when it goes South.' Reviews like his set the tone for those to follow. As the movie went into wider release, many critics found Travolta's Long a cliche and thought the movie moved sluggishly.
'I thought Shainee did a great job of capturing the South and the pace of life in New Orleans for a lot of people,' Capps says. 'A lot of people think it's melodramatic, but it's not. There are a lot of melodramatic people in the world, y'know?'
The movie was scheduled to open in wide release the weekend of Feb. 4 -- the weekend before Mardi Gras. Figuring the competition would doom the movie here, its New Orleans debut was postponed, but after the box-office numbers were disappointing around the country, there was little enthusiasm for scheduling it. Finally, it opened at the Chalmette 9, where the marquee read, 'Bobby Long Cursed,' the latter the name of another movie showing at the theater.
Capps saw the movie there with friends in a setting as unlike the Hollywood opening as is possible. The screen had a rip, and he saw it with 'some derelict friends.' They snuck booze and beer into the theater. 'Every time there was a quiet moment, you'd hear a clink as somebody dropped a bottle,' he says.
As bizarre as the experience has been, good has come of it for Capps. Hyena Records, the label that put out the soundtrack for the movie, is releasing a re-sequenced version his 2004 self-titled album under the name If You Knew My Mind with national distribution. Now that the movie is out on DVD, he is hearing from people who have seen the movie who knew Bobby Long. He is also performing at a few events in Alabama where he'll be on hand for a screening of the movie and a talk afterward.
Capps is reserved evaluating the movie. His father was upset that more wasn't made of the real-life Long's favorite dance, the Alabama Shuffle, and you get the sense talking to Grayson that something crucial in Long's story got lost in translation. On one hand, he says the movie was a disaster, but when asked how, he praises Travolta and particularly Johansson, saying, 'She nailed the shit out of North Florida white trash.'
'The last song I wrote was called, 'Bullshit Hollywood,'' he says. 'Come to my show and hear it.'
For reviews of recent CDs by Beck, Shelby Lynne, Marie Gauthier, Los Super Seven, Nikki Sudden & the Last Bandits, and Sloan and Friends and Lovers: Songs of Bread, see Opening Act 2 online.
- When A Love Song for Bobby Long finally opened at the Chalmette 9, the marquee read, 'Bobby Long Cursed,' the latter the name of another movie showing at the theater.