In one of the most profoundly moving moments in The Last Hot Lick, 69-year-old Oregon folk musician Jack Willits (Jaime Leopold) cries onstage. It's a riveting display of vulnerability from Leopold, a real-life musician and first-time actor. The song is called "Daddy Cut Wood Up on the Mountain," and though it's being sung by a fictional character, it was actually written by Leopold about his childhood. When Jack gets to the lines "And the sound of Daddy's pickup/Rollin' through the leaves," he becomes so overwhelmed with memories of a life long gone, he can barely get the words out.
It's a beautifully candid moment. But according to writer-director Mahalia Cohen, it required some maneuvering.
"A lot of the other songs in the movie he had written some years earlier and had been performing for a while, but that song was something that he had just been writing right before we shot the movie," Cohen says. "And when he played it for me, he said that he always got choked up at a certain moment in the song. So I chose that song specifically because I knew that would happen."
Cohen self-deprecatingly calls the moment "a little bit manipulated." Profoundly moving is a better description, and one that fits The Last Hot Lick as a whole. The film, which was produced by Cohen's mother Deborah and shot in Oregon, is both visually and emotionally transcendent. The semi-improvised movie tells the story of Jack going on tour and befriending Bobby (Short Stories singer Jennifer Smieja, another first-time actor), a heroin addict who becomes his singing partner.
Cohen wrote the script with Leopold in mind. A former member of the jazz and rock band Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Leopold has been part of Cohen's life ever since she was a child. "My mother and him had been friends since before I was born and he has daughters my age and we all grew up together," she says, "so I knew him in a very different capacity, in more of a fatherly role."
The idea of Cohen assuming a "parental" role herself by directing Leopold came to fruition in 2015, when she had two scripts stuck in development hell and "was getting a bit fed up with waiting." A group of friends from Argentina were interested in coming to Oregon to work on movies, so she dreamed up the story of Jack and Bobby.
Cohen says that the resulting script "is not a true story at all, but it does have some basis in his [Leopold's] life." That didn't mean, however, that she was unwilling to throw the script out the window when necessary. While shooting the film in September 2015, she says that Leopold and Smieja had only "a vague idea of what the movie was about."
The result is an improvisation-heavy film packed with powerfully off-the-cuff moments, like a refreshingly unflattering shot of Jack running a comb through his receding hair. This approach, Cohen says, "was more difficult for Jennifer," so while shooting additional scenes in April 2016, she gave Smieja lines to memorize. Remarkably, the decision to put Smieja on script and let Leopold keep freestyling didn't mar the movie's realism. One of the film's finest scenes—a gas-station confrontation where Jack fires Bobby and she slickly butters him up—was filmed during that second round of shooting.
The Last Hot Lick was shot at locations across Oregon and Southern Washington, including Portland, the Columbia Gorge and Washougal, WA. Cohen, who grew up in Portland and is now based in New York, describes the experience as a homecoming. "I'm very inspired by the Oregon landscape," she says, "and even though I've lived on the East Coast for quite a while and made films all over the place, a lot of the scripts that I write are set in Oregon, and that's the background for my imagination."
"[It's] an expansiveness and an awe-inspiring quality to the landscape that is really different from anything you can find on the East Coast," says Cohen. "Everything feels very big to me in Oregon. It creates a really extreme world and a big world for the characters to exist in." No scene shows that better than a haunting dream sequence shot near the Painted Hills. Jack sits outside drinking from a gallon-jug of water, dwarfed by the dry and daunting peaks around him—an image that beautifully communicates both the agony and the ecstasy of his isolation.
That scene sets the stage for a heartbreaking ending. Yet while Cohen acknowledges the melancholy that clings to the film's conclusion, she doesn't view The Last Hot Lick as a tragedy.
"He continues on even though he's been stripped of everything," says Cohen. "He continues playing his music, and it becomes maybe less about finding the right person to sing the songs for him and being successful because he's famous to just working on his art and singing the songs himself because they're meaningful to him."
SEE IT: The Last Hot Lick plays at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 7 pm Saturday, Jan. 20. $9.