Up in Boone County, West Virginia
There lives the outlaw Jesco White
And the way he loves to dance
Makes all the men want to fight …
— “Jesco,” Trailer Bride’s High Seas (Bloodshot, 2001)
(Editor’s note, Feb. 2021: These films were originally reviewed as separate VHS releases. They’re now available as a single DVD.)
Jesco White is a mountain-style tap dancer, an ex-con, a hillbilly of the first degree, and a hideous channeler of Elvis Presley. And he’s something of a star — at least, he’s had his 15 minutes of fame, and then some.
Filmmaker Jacob Young directed both the original documentary and its sequel. They provide a startling snapshot of modern hillbilly culture and of the fickle machine that is the entertainment industry.
The Emmy award-winning first film introduces us to Jesco through the eyes and words of his mother, his wife Norma Jean and through Jesco’s own torrential stream-of-consciousness words. As the film opens, we’re treated to a montage of images of Boone County, W. Va., replete with single-wide trailer houses perched in trash-strewn yards. Then we see Jesco in jeans, flannel shirt and leather cap tap-dancing his way across a footbridge, a boombox on his shoulder pounding out the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ song “If You Wanna Get to Heaven (You Got to Raise a Little Hell).” Jesco’s dance is interspersed with clips of his wife and mother discussing him, his history and his personality.
The centerpiece of the film is the tortured tale of an altercation that led to the shooting death of Jesco’s father, Donald “D. Ray” White, in 1985. Donald White was a singer and mountain-style dancer of the first rank, and was included in Mike Seeger’s documentary Talking Feet. Jesco was deeply affected by the death, and vowed to carry on his father’s dancing legacy.
But first he had to overcome or at least tame some of the darkness in his own soul. He’s hotheaded, impulsive and prone to violence; it’s unclear whether he’s a little mentally unstable as the result of his abuse of inhalants as a teenager. But he did a couple of stints in juvenile hall, and there are hints that he spent time in the slammer as an adult, too, particularly the plethora of jailhouse tattoos on his hands and arms.
As Norma Jean says, “Jesco can be three people. He is Jesse, he is Jesco, and he is Elvis. Jesse is the most beautiful man that I could have ever loved. But Jesco, he’s somebody else. He’s the devil in hisself.”
At the time of the filming, Jesco was estranged from the rest of his family, partly because they disapproved of his marriage to the older Norma Jean, and partly because he’s trying to stay clean and sober. That the rest of the clan is not clean and sober comes through in one harrowing yet hilarious scene of the drunken family members roaring their cars, trucks and motorcycles in circles through the mud outside of one brother’s trailer, as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” blasts from a stereo. “We get together two-three times a week and do this,” one sister slurs through her rolled-down pickup window.
Jesco shows us his bedroom, which is a shrine to Elvis and a homemade karaoke den. It’s stuffed with more Elvis kitsch than you can imagine, and a stereo that’s wired to let Jesco/Jesse/Elvis sing along through a microphone suspended from the ceiling. Let’s just say he’s no threat to the thousands of Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas. But he says that Elvis and the kitsch collection saved his life, and doing his singing helps him calm down.
As the film ends, Jesco and Norma Jean are sitting on separate stoops of their own roadside single-wide arguing vehemently about love and marriage. In a short clip of a separate interview tacked onto the end, Jesco spreads his arms wide and says, “The next time you see me, I might be famous.”
His words rang true, as Dancing Outlaw became a cult classic, circulated from hand to hand across the country among afficionados of the underbelly of Americana. One copy got into the hands of Tom Arnold, who at the time was married to Roseanne Barr-Arnold, who had one of the most popular sit-coms on American television in the mid-’90s. Arnold tracked Jesco down and invited him to appear on The Roseanne Show.
Jesco Goes to Hollywood is the document of his journey. It has more of a narrative structure than the first film: Jesco and filmmaker Young get on a plane and fly to Hollywood, where Jesco dances down the Avenue of Stars and appears on the TV show. The producers of Roseanne wouldn’t allow Young to include the actual scene from the show in this film, but we see plenty of the rehearsal, including Jesco dancing while Dweezil Zappa plays “Wildwood Flower” on guitar. “I thought his name was Weasel,” Jesco says.
A couple of the more affecting moments come when Jesco is getting makeup applied for the first time in his life, before the show; and afterward when he goes to a tattoo parlor to get a crude jailhouse swastika covered. Roseanne and Tom, both Jewish, were shocked at the tattoo, but Arnold quickly realized that Jesco didn’t really understand the symbol’s significance. He hands Jesco a wad of bills and directs him to the Hollywood Boulevard shop where he and Roseanne both had numerous tattoos applied, and Jesco emerges with three huge roses covering most of his hand and wrist. Show over, Jesco flies home to a hero’s welcome, and walks back up the holler to his home with Norma Jean.
The first video contains a lengthy series of uncut interviews from which many of the scenes in the film were edited. In them, we get a clearer look at Jesco’s obsessive personality, as he goes on at length about a pair of his sunglasses he left at his brother’s house, and how their retrieval led to the shootout that killed his father.
In Dancing Outlaw and Jesco Goes to Hollywood Jesco White comes off as a true folk hero, one who is questionably self-aware but entirely aware of his celebrity, but who remains true to himself throughout the experience. Together or separately, these two films are an impressive bit of filmmaking.
(Moviefish 1991 and 1994, VHS 2002, DVD 2005)
You can learn more about Jesco White and order the DVDs at https://www.dancingoutlaw.com/.