Tommy Wier (Communication Studies) is a documentary filmmaker who specializes in telling little-known stories about the colorful characters of his native Alabama. Past subjects have included a crusading governor with an affinity for JFK and a Frank Lloyd Wright house fading away in a small Alabama town.
In his latest projects (both coproduced and directed by Robert Clem), Wier focuses his lens on an orphan from Mobile who caroused with Fellini in Rome—and on the groups of singing steelworkers from Birmingham whose style is at the roots of rock and roll.
Eugene Walter: Last of the Bohemians, which debuted in October 2007, follows the flamboyant writer, artist, and bon vivant from his childhood on the sleepy Alabama Gulf Coast to the nascent Greenwich Village art scene and the glamorous streets of Paris and Rome in the 1950s and '60s.
Tommy Wier on his documentary about Eugene Walter
Additional sketches provided by Auburn University Library
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The Gospel Highway, still in production, winds through Alabama and across the Deep South in search of the origins of gospel music. One of the genre's deepest roots, as it turns out, is buried in Birmingham's soot-covered, steelmaking past, when workers banded together to form singing groups. Vibrant a capella quartets such as the Kings of Harmony, the Heavenly Gospel Singers, and the Red Rose Quartet developed their own unique style, characterized by a strong bass voice and a fluid exchange of lead vocals between singers. This "Jefferson County sound" would quickly spread around the country and influence generations of musicians around the world.
On the Record: Just what was the Jefferson County sound? What sets it apart from other gospel music?
Wier: The influence came originally from slaves, singing a capella in the fields, and then it transcended into the steel mills, where you had another, different influence—the metal clanking. In the cotton fields, they were just singing to pass the time and keep their spirits high. But then in Birmingham's steel mills, you had a large group of individuals working together, and they found camaraderie in singing. So they would actually use the rhythm of the banging of the metal to keep time and to sing together. The Jefferson County sound influenced the whole genre of gospel music. And jazz and gospel were probably the greatest influences on rock and roll.
On the Record: Your previous documentaries have been purely Alabama stories, but this one took you farther afield.
GOSPEL SUMMIT: Roscoe Robinson of the Blind Boys of Mississippi (left) chats with Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama in The Gospel Highway.
Wier: Right. We went to Mississippi; we went to South Carolina to tape some performance footage of the Dixie Hummingbirds. We also went to Arkansas to profile a contemporary gospel family called the Selvys. There are five sisters and two brothers and the father and the mother. We went and stayed with them for a while and filmed some of their local performances.
On the Record: The subject of your other new film, Eugene Walter, was also quite a showman, wasn't he?
Wier: He just didn't fit in as an artist and as an individual in the ‘40s and ‘50s in the South—he wasn't interested in working in the fields or playing sports. He was more interested in poetry and writing and reading. So he left Alabama and went to New York, and became part of the arts scene there. I consider him the first performance artist, because he and his friends would stage "stand-ins" at the Museum of Art. They would just show up and stand around, or start acting crazy, and there was always a big splash in the newspapers.
He was also a cook, and very interested in food and presentation and parties. He was in Greenwich Village for a while, and then he went to Paris and joined George Plimpton and others to start the Paris Review. Around this time he also wrote one of the best-known Southern cookbooks, Great Southern Cooking, which is still available.
But as soon as he became successful in one subject, he would tend to turn his attention elsewhere. So he got bored in Paris and went to Rome, where he met Federico Fellini and started translating Fellini's screenplays into English for American audiences. Then he started acting, and he would take bit parts or character parts in Fellini's films. He probably acted in 60 or 70 films in bit parts. He was also well known for throwing lavish parties. He made the comment once, "Nobody ever told me there were banks to put money in; I just simply made it and threw it out the window." But he tended to wear out his welcome; he never really had a steady job. He was always looking for a patron to support him.
On the Record: How do you decide on the subjects for your documentary projects?
Wier: There are hundreds of ideas out there. I have lots of ideas stuffed in my files, and every now and then I'll pull one out if I think the timing is right. Or people will come to me and say, "Why don't you do this?" And if I find out that the subject hasn't been done before, or there's a different angle I could take on it that catches my interest, then I'll spend some time doing research and making contacts and feeling out what the marketplace will bear. We're always bouncing different ideas around, but then we get practical and say, Okay, what kind of support can we get? Is this just a local story, or is it bigger? Can I make somebody else find it interesting? There are projects that we've started and abandoned because we couldn't find enough support. If you're going to make a living, you have to consider where the money's coming from and how you're going to get a response to it so you can do other things.
On the Record: So you're always seeking patrons. Do you identify with Eugene Walter in that way?
Wier: Yeah—but obviously I'm a little bit more practical. He didn't care whether or not he found the money for anything; he was just bent on creating, and hopefully things would fall where they may. It's great to want to just sit and write all day, but who can live that way in this day and time? So I do commercial work, creating and writing and directing and editing commercials, and I teach here at UAB a couple of days a week. But I try to find, in whatever I'm doing, a way to allow my creativity to come out. And if people appreciate that, then that's wonderful. But if they don't, I'm not going to stop creating. I just may not show it to as many people.