This fall, my first feature film, Shangri-La Suite, will be released in theaters. It tells the story of two lovers-on-the-run during the summer of 1974. Their names: Jack Blueblood and Karen Bird. Their aim: to kill Elvis Presley. It stars Emily Browning, Luke Grimes, Avan Jogia and Ron Livingston (as the King). Burt Reynolds narrates. The trailer can be seen above.
My writing partner, Chris Hutton, and I, titled our film Shangri-La Suite because we wanted it to feel like a suite of music; like some warped, violent, teenage dirge. Instead of focusing on the tenets of plot, character and structure, we aimed to explore the feeling, the musicality – the momentum, style and cadence – of our story. We wanted to write a two chord movie; to turn “Sister Ray” or “Great Balls Of Fire” into a ninety minute piece of cult-trash outsider cinema. Whether or not we succeeded in this ambition is up for debate. Regardless, music is at the core of Shangri-La’s DNA.
Justin Gage, the man behind Aquarium Drunkard (and my good friend), served as the project’s music supervisor. Justin has been kind enough to offer me a platform here, leading up to the film’s release, where I can write about some of the artists and tracks that inspired our movie and helped shape its creation.
For my inaugural entry, I’ve chosen Link Wray’s cover of Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country.” It’s a song that served as a north star reference for us – from the writing of the script, through the pitch process, and into the film’s production. We’d often play the track on set, conjuring its energy during love scenes, shootouts, car chases and sequences without sound.
There are two kinds of pop songs in the world. Songs that sneak up on you slowly; revealing themselves over time, and songs that knock you on your ass right from the start. For me, Link Wray’s reimagining of Dylan’s seminal ballad is most definitely the latter.
I don’t remember where I was exactly, or how it came into my life, but I remember the feeling of hearing it for the first time; the raw, steam engine force of it. I must have played it four-hundred times over the course of a month – wearing it out like a pair of summer Keds. Up until that point, Link Wray was “Rumble” to me, and nothing more. He was a badass rockabilly guitar virtuoso; hip but marginal; a fifties-diner, junk box novelty. Boy, was I wrong.
What’s so brilliant and unforgettable about Wray’s cover is the fact that he totally subverts the source material. Where Dylan’s rendition is beautiful, yet somber – filled with longing and hurt, Wray’s version is unabashed rock n roll; it’s melody, totally out of step with the sorrowful words being emitted from his calloused, tuberculosis-ravaged vocal chords.
Through “North Country,” I came to discover a whole other side to Link Wray. It wasn’t long before I eventually uncovered more of his post-fifties material. His self-titled 1971 record is a treasure trove of country ballads, both ahead of its time and out of time. A must listen for anyone who isn’t already familiar.
Chris and I had just begun writing Shangri-La when I first came across “North Country,” but I knew instantly that I wanted our film to look, feel and move just like it. I wanted our movie to evoke the same sense of sun-drenched, desaturated, dusty Americana. I wanted it to share the same odd, incongruous mixture of machismo and melancholy; violence and sorrow. When Shangri-La Suite is released this fall, I hope audiences can feel a touch of Wray’s wild spirit in the celluloid. words / e o’keefe