Gruff Rhys’ musical journey to retrace the footsteps of relative John Evans is a weird and mostly wonderful romantic odyssey.
The Wizard of Odd by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Eschewing the more common tropes of documentary music films in favour of a hand puppet and powerpoint presentations, Gruff Rhys’ and Dylan Goch’s film is an elusive and somewhat difficult to encapsulate experience. Rhys’ talent for storytelling combined with an effortless warmth and charisma propels a film based on a story which has grown arms and legs over generations. Often teetering on the edge of silliness, threatening to capsize itself in a deluge of whimsy, the film steadies itself with an infusion of interesting subtext.
Accompanying the album and book of the same name, American Interior follows Gruff Rhys as he embarks upon an ‘investigative concert tour’ of the American midwest in an effort to retrace the steps of relative John Evans. Evans left Wales for America in 1792 and died there seven years later. Disappearing into the wilderness in 1796 in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans believed to be the descendants of Prince Madoc, (who according to folklore sailed from Wales to America in 1170) Evans emerged two years later newly christened ‘Don Juan’ Evans.
If the synopsis above seems somewhat ludicrous – it’s because it is – and the enjoyment to be gleaned from American Interior is Rhys’ daft and gleeful ‘nod and a wink’ approach to his voyage of discovery. It’s never quite clear to the audience how much of Evans’ journey that Rhys truly believes, but his infectious personality easily ingratiates the audience to follow along as willing participants nonetheless. Equipped with a power point presentation in one hand and a guitar and/or hand puppet of John Evans in the other, Rhys shares the story of John Evans in song by night, meeting scholars, historians, storytellers and Native American tribesmen by day.
Once Rhys hits the Missouri river – having teamed up with The Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock – the slightly repetitive title music and general whimsical format give rise to a sense that the film is running out of ideas. Fortunately enough, we are near the end of our journey which just so happens to be the most interesting and meaty part of American Interior. In the final leg of his journey, Rhys encounters members of the Mandan tribe in North Dakota. While the purpose of the visit is to shed light on hazy accounts of Evans’ time with the Mandan tribe from 1796-1797, the film inadvertently explores the cultural and linguistic decline of a tribe which draws direct comparisons with Wales history of political and cultural anglification. Speaking with the last remaining fluent Mandan speaker, Edwin Benson, Rhys is visibly moved by the gravity of the situation and the film maintains this melancholic tone until his return to Wales.
And return to Wales he does, his search for a Welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans fruitless. In spite of this, you sense that Rhys’ flight of fancy was fueled by the romance of folklore and the celebration of an almost mythical folk hero in Evans. Evans’ legacy rose from his unknown resting place in New Spain and Rhys’ journey; a celebration of endeavour, of storytelling, fittingly concludes on a hill in Wales with Rhys and friends throwing down a New Orleans style jazz memorial.
American Interior is a very enjoyable and sometimes seemingly nonsensical jaunt around middle America. The songs from the album it is serving to promote get repetitious, but Rhys’ likeable and deadpan delivery never gets old. Beautifully shot in vivid digital it’s a film that is made by filmmakers who knew exactly the type of film they wanted to make. Based largely on the romantic whisperings of folklore, it has an interesting and important political subtext which explores the decline of Native American language and culture. Don Juan Evans would approve.
American Interior is released on 9th May 2014 in the UK