The Wendell Baker Story: now available on DVD (Yeah, but where’s the soundtrack?)

(This came out yesterday, and I hope they release the soundtrack:  Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jackson Browne, and ZZ Top, and more.  So many music soundtracks are released that are not interesting at all, but this one is great.)

by:  John Defore

AUSTIN, Texas — From the cherry-picked singer-songwriter tunes on its soundtrack to the typeface of its opening title card, “The Wendell Baker Story” clearly looks to another decade as its home: the ’70s, when intimate comedies could be quirky without pretense and when Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel (the co-stars and cultural good-luck charms of this picture) became familiar faces. In large part the film succeeds, feeling like a good-natured throwback, albeit one wearing a fresh-starched three-act structure whose folds couldn’t be crisper if they were ironed out by a screenwriting seminar. Boxoffice prospects will depend on marketing savvy.

Writer and co-director Luke Wilson plays the title character, whose livelihood might be criminal but at least helps people in need: He sells fake ID cards to migrant workers, operating out of an Airstream trailer he calls “the Ellis Island of the Southwest.” When his career lands him in jail, Baker realizes that his natural affection for people can flourish in unlikely places — he gets the Crips together with the Aryan Brotherhood, among other feats of social magic — and decides to seek post-prison work in the hospitality sector.

Wendell finds his first straight job in a retirement home whose head nurse, Neil King (Wilson’s brother, Owen), is a mean-spirited version of his old self: King is skimming from the checks sent for his residents, forcing them to do his chores and threatening them with outright slavery. It falls to Wendell to set things straight, while the elders in his care help him with his own dilemma, winning back the girl who got away

Bonus features:

The first of two featurettes, “Afternoon at Luke’s – With Harry Dean Stanton & Seymour Cassel” (21:25) is refreshingly candid at its start, as Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson each pick up one of the titular veteran actors and unite for an afternoon of noshing and discussion. The piece is utterly captivating when Stanton and Cassel talk about their lives, careers, and Wendell Baker experiences, but it gets more than a little weird and depressing when the frail-looking Stanton shares his wild, nihilistic views on life. It closes with Harry Dean performing a song on the guitar.

The more conventional inclusion, “Making Wendell Baker: On Location with Wilsons” (13:35), sheds quite a bit of light on production with a nice blend of set footage and interview comments. The latter do gravitate towards praise, but the remarks also inform on the nature and origins of the film.

The Bonus Scenes section runs just shy of ten minutes and serves up eight deletions/extensions. Though each sequence is brief, a number of them are self-contained and add something. Introductory text screens provide context as to their placement, but suggest more deleted scenes are inexplicably absent. The scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and, though sufficiently edited, they have the rough look of production video.

Next comes an audio commentary, which the DVD credits to both co-directors, Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson. We only hear from Andrew in one soft background remark, meaning for all purposes Luke is flying solo.


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