While I don’t watch as many as I should. I do always have a soft spot for documentaries, especially at festivals. One of my favorite sub-genres has to be the production documentary that gives more insight to the making of a movie, and SXSW this year had one that immediately stuck out to me in The Bandit. I’ve yet to find someone who legitimately dislikes Smokey and the Bandit and you can’t tell me you dislike Burt Reynolds and mean it, so I made sure to find time for this at the festival. So now the question is does this documentary outrun the cops and succeed or crash when jumping the river.
What some people don’t know about Smokey and the Bandit is that it was the director Hal Neeham’s first film after spending the rest of his career as a stunt man. He had been Burt Reynolds’ personal stuntman for a long time as well as his best friend and roommate actually and as such it was a big risk for the studio to make this movie. But with Needham’s pushing and Reynolds’ support and connections it got made. I feel that little history lesson is the best place to start because this documentary is as much about their bromance to end all bromances as it is about Smokey and the Bandit itself. Both were country boys that went to Hollywood to make something of themselves with Burt wishing he was as tough as the stuntmen and Hal wishing he could be a lead actor like Burt and they met in the middle being the best of friends and making the best movies. We get a lot of information on both men’s history from their early family lives to the peak of their career and I have to say that I learned a fair bit from it I didn’t know and came to appreciate them even more for it. The documentary team really do a wonderful job of engrossing you in their subjects.
A lot of credit has to go to director Jesse Moss and his editors because its clear they went through hours upon hours of old footage to show more than outright tell which is the heart of making a movie, even a documentary. Using a mixture of Reynolds’ own extensive collection of reels of footage as well as that of other celebrities and media people in the film they make a documentary that is almost exclusively told through rare and wonderfully preserved footage of interviews with Needham and/or Reynolds, Reynolds’ short lived late night show and also just general behind the scenes footage from Smokey and the Bandit and other films that the stars worked on. Its clear they really loved their subject matter to sink that much time into finding footage and linking it together and overall it makes a good narrative to boot.
But I do have to say that the narrative can sometimes feel convoluted or at least not as to the point of the documentary as you’d expect to hope. I’d have to say that so much time is spent on Reynolds and Needham’s history that it almost feels they wanted to tell that story more than that of the film. There are also times that they get to something interesting I, and presumably the rest of the audience, didn’t know about the film like a car stunt that went awry and injured some kids and it feels like its given weight for a short bit and then not given full resolution for what happened. Were they in trouble because of this stunt past the general concern for injury? Was there ramifications to the production already hurting for money and time? We don’t really get much from it and its a shame because I really wanted to know more and wish they gave it to us. Its great that they went the full range on the subject to get us a lot of information outside of the movie, but when we get some information on Needham’s attempts for more name notoriety that its hard to place chronologically with the film production instead of fully sharing stories from the production, it feels like the focus wasn’t always clear.
Don’t let that last bit dissuade you from seeing this though, its really not my point because all of this classic footage, of classic Burt Reynolds and his films really is worth it unto itself in my opinion. What you do get of new information from the production and the footage used is really perfect for me and I’d like to assume for most other documentary fans too.
Its not a documentary that will wow you at every turn or tell you 1000 things about Smokey and the Bandit you’ve never heard before but it is something really worthwhile for any fan of the film or fan of Hal Needham or Burt Reynolds. For its few issues with focus or confusing chronology it provides footage and interviews that both entertain and inform. With it also being produced by CMT and as such likely to be getting released on cable and easily viewable, there really isn’t a good reason I can give not to watch The Bandit if the subject matter even interests you only a little.