Written by Siân Darling.
Dancing Outlaw (1991) came into my view as a bootleg VHS recorded off the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Service. Directed by Jacob Young, it was part of the Different Drummer documentary series.
This documentary follows Jesco White, a young man living with his wife, and his three personalities, in the Appalachian Mountains. The son of D. Ray, one of America’s best mountain dancers, Jesco is dancing in his daddy’s footsteps. We meet the struggling Jesco, who despite his ambitions to pay homage to his father and keep the family tradition, is sabotaged by his altercations with the law, drug addiction and psychological afflictions.
Jesco is co-starred by his wife, Norma-Jean, who reveals with certainty that there are three sides to Jesco White. We first meet the gentle and endearing Jesse, who is earnest and sensitive; soon to be followed by a dangerously violent Jesco; before being stunned by the seriousness of his third personality, a form of Elvis who records himself singing in his recording studio that doubles as his and Norma-Jean’s bedroom. Norma-Jean met Jesco when she picked him up hitchhiking. Jesco was planning to steal her car to pay for sniffing-glue but lucky for Norma Jean, Jesco fell in love with her before the robbery could happen.
What makes Dancing Outlaw so powerful and palatable is the honesty with which the characters reveal their stories. There is something refreshing about Jesco, and innocent, even when he threatens to slit Norma-Jeans throat for making his eggs too runny.
Having seen the film only once, the strength of the storytelling is evident as the impression remains. The story is gripping, not just for the glimpse into a world so foreign and at characters so eccentric from those in mainstream media, but because it is a story of heartbreaking revelations and an insight into a mind that has morphed to save itself in the harshness of reality. Jesco, the angry drug addict, was saved by the formation of the Elvis identity. The dancing, learned from his father, might have such significance due to Jesco witnessing his father’s murder.
The raw honesty of this storytelling is challenging, perhaps even more than the content. It is not so much the horror of Jesco’s history that grips the audience; it is his enduring optimism and dedication to his dancing, which is entertaining in itself. Dancing Outlaw might seem exploitative of a vulnerable civilian and his family, but it doesn’t feel that way when watching. We are taken into Jesco’s world, where he leads the audience through this special place, and although dipping in and out of Jesco’s own fantasies, it is with gripping candor and reality.
It was a hard film to find after watching it that one lucky time on VHS but this hidden gem has come from high in the hills, and taken the protagonist all the way to Hollywood. It has since been released to DVD, had two sequels made, with Jesco becoming quite a sensation. Jesco’s celebrity status soared from this film, with MTV and Johnny Knoxville being involved in the production of the third sequel The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009), and Jesco’s voice featuring in Grand Theft Auto V.
It seems Dancing Outlaw was intended for a local audience, being part of a television series, but Jesco White tells a story like no other. There is a star quality in the strikingly sensitive Jesco, he relates comfortably with the camera and seems connected with an audience that he knows is with him.
The official trailer for The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009):