In a perverse way, it’s almost fitting that Billy Mize can barely speak for himself in the opening frames of the documentary that bears his name, the seventy-something singer’s mouth agape as a therapist asks him to say his name. This is hardly the man we see moments later in flashbacks, sharply dressed in a red jacket during his heyday as a bandleader in Bakersfield, California, but as one of his disciples, singer/songwriter Dave Alvin laments about Mize, “He’s a good looking guy who probably should’ve been a star.”
Nowadays, documentaries such as “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” have become commonplace in revealing the outsized influence of people who didn’t get their due when they were most active. But the film made by William J. Saunders, who actually credits himself as “Billy’s Grandson” at the end of the film, is more poignant than most, simultaneously charting how Mize cultivated a unique strain of electric guitar-infused country music and a host of famous musicians such as Buck Owens as an oasis in the California desert while showing Mize attempting to recover from a stroke that took his voice and ability to play guitar at the age of 59.
The very fact the film was produced by the Academy of Country Music suggests that Mize is finally beginning to get proper recognition for creating a place lovingly referred to as Nashville West. Still, even for those who aren’t fans of the genre, Mize has an intriguing life story, migrating as a young boy with his family from Kansas to California during the Dust Bowl with the promise of oil and bringing with him the music of his midwestern birthplace with him. However, as Mize grew to learn, the real opportunity wasn’t in black gold, but the burgeoning medium of television, which needed to fill its airwaves with local talent to accompany such national shows as the Texaco Star Theatre. The exposure made Mize a larger than life figure, but only as far as the signal covered and it meant he could stay close to home while his family expanded, it deprived him of being a household name outside Kern County.
With Mize well enough to speak a little bit from his own experience, accompanied by his partner for much of it, Martha, Saunders is able to tell two stories often within the same frame, having the singer reclaim his rightful place in history with what voice he has left or at least his memory of it. As the subject’s grandson, the director offers up a radiant remembrance, even as Billy, Martha and family and friends discuss professional and personal disappointments, including the accidental deaths of Mize’s first two sons. But what truly impresses is how Saunders and a team of editors including David Nordstrom, Morgan R. Stiff and Jeff Cvitkovic have structured the film, which may be largely chronological after its opening in the present day yet proves to be continually fascinating due to the smart and occasionally surprising placement of interview subjects, letting some events of the story build before hearing from one of its prime witnesses.
Even without such post-production skill, the larger arc of “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” would pack a punch simply due to how Mize’s recovery unfolds. While the question of whether Mize will be able to sing again carries the most tension – there’s even the ticking clock of an 80th birthday celebration concert looming over the whole film – the way Mize goes about speech rehabilitation is actually more compelling, an approach that as we’ve learned about Mize all too naturally blends tried-and-true techniques with something personal and specific to the musician. The same could be said of the film itself, a fairly traditional biopic with zest provided by its central character. True to Mize, it creates something quite electric amidst humble origins.