Three-time felon Jerry McGill (1940 – 2013) was a musician whose life was the stuff of legend. Very Extremely Dangerous (2012) is a documentary that was filmed in 2010 during his battle with lung cancer. In it we meet a man who is described by his own friends as a “rattlesnake,” yet even at that point, his charisma and talent were palpable. The 90-minute film was directed by Irish filmmaker Paul Duane, who also produced, along with author Robert Gordon. Duane was inspired to track down McGill and tell his story after reading Gordon’s book It Came from Memphis. I think they would have gotten more cooperation out of a real rattlesnake, but what they did capture is unforgettable.
In 1959 McGill recorded a single for Sun Records titled “Lovestruck,” then he was busted for armed robbery. Four hours after making bail, he was a fugitive and went underground. Occasionally he would turn up to work with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Carl Perkins, The Allman Brothers, and others. He had just been released from a Florida prison for attempted murder when we catch up with him. He had also just been diagnosed with lung cancer.
The ten-week period that is chronicled in the movie is utter chaos. The doctors have McGill scheduled for surgery to remove the cancer, and as the clock ticks down, his antics become increasingly bizarre. As Duane states in a voice-over, “He seems to be a dying outlaw looking for redemption.” The high point comes with his first live appearance in Memphis in 45 years. McGill’s voice is raw with years of living the life, but it is a magical experience to hear him, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and the washboard playing of longtime friend Jimmy Crosthwait. The audience of Memphis hipsters are young enough to be his grandchildren, yet they are riveted, as was I.
It is obvious that the filmmakers were forced to fashion a narrative out of the raw film they had, and what we get is basically a slice of life. In many ways this is perfect though, because we get a first-hand look at the insanity, self-destruction, violence, and God-given musical talent that made him who he was. At the end of Very Extremely Dangerous, McGill is declared cancer-free, but he would die a year after the film’s theatrical release.
There are seven bonus segments on the DVD: “Honor Roll Call” (1:12), “Shadow Over Memphis” (3:45), “Tallahassee Crack House” (3:07), “Childhood Home” (2:07), and “Jerry Tells All About Paul” (5:19) feature McGill‘s second talent, that of a great story teller. The final two, “Why You Been Gone So Long?” (2:48) and “Hoochie Coochie Man (3:43) are live performances. There is also a CD, which features a compilation of studio tunes titled AKA Jerry McGill, plus the film soundtrack, for a total of 25 songs in all. There is also a booklet with a long essay by Gordon as well as track information for the CD in the package.
The set has been released by Fat Possum Records, home of such artists as R.L. Burnside, The Black Keys, Townes Van Zandt, and others. They really went all out on this, and I have to say that the story of Jerry McGill is pretty incredible. I have read accounts of people tracking down forgotten musicians, and being shocked at what they found, as if the crazed music was all just an act. The interviewees in Very Extremely Dangerous even hint that some of McGill’s shenanigans might be a bit of an act. Maybe so, but there is real fear in their eyes at times, and sheer madness in McGill’s. Very Extremely Dangerous makes Behind the Music look like Romper Room.