Documentary filmmakers A.J. Schnack and David Wilson knew it would be easy to make fun of Branson, middle America’s flag-waving, family-friendly celebration of musical variety shows and early-bird dinner specials.
But the Midwest natives felt a stronger obligation to dig beneath the surface and portray local performers and town leaders as more than aw-shucks Ozark folk. The result is “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a new film that unspools a nuanced story of how the southwest Missouri resort is dealing with the aftermath of an economic recession, an aging audience and performance troupes whose gay cast members live a version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“We wanted to present stories that go beyond the facade,” said Wilson, who grew up in and still lives in the college town of Columbia. “We knew there was something there beyond the stereotype.”
Tourism boosters across Missouri held their breath. A critical look at the place that refers to itself as “the live music show capital of the world” could have serious ramifications in a town of just more than 10,000 residents that supports 50 theaters and 100 shows with combined total of nearly 65,000 seats – more than Broadway.
Penetrating the city’s fiercely guarded barrier, which provided the movie’s title, took five years and hundreds of hours of footage. The film follows four story arcs: the Presley family, whose country jubilee opened a half-century ago and paved the way for the dozens of theaters to follow; the Lennon siblings, proud California liberals who followed Lawrence Welk to town after starring on his TV show as children; the struggling Magnificent Variety Show, whose cast members must pass out discount coupons to disinterested tourists while hoping their late paychecks don’t bounce; and performer Chip Holderman, a single father whose “lifestyle” clashes with his ex-wife’s new husband.
The filmmakers initially thought they would chronicle alternative youth culture in a town with few outward signs of rebellion or dissent. Instead, they were drawn to a version of Branson that doesn’t appear in glossy tourism brochures: rural homeless, illiterate hotel workers and variety show co-owner Tamra Tinoco singing “Johnny B. Goode” to an unsuspecting audience while simultaneously writing a backstage note to her employees that “paychecks will be here tomorrow. Wait another day.”
The documentary will be distributed nationally in 2014. It kicked off the annual St. Louis International Film Festival in November.
Dan Lennon, whose singing sisters were a household name during their Welk heyday, said the film is a “realistic portrayal of our community. It’s not an ideal one.”