What comes to mind when you think of Branson, Missouri? Grand Ole Opry lite? Bible-belt kitsch? Osmonds? If those are the sum of your thoughts, add “ill-informed preconception.” And the antidote to that is We Always Lie to Strangers.
The quietly absorbing documentary by A.J. Schnack and David Wilson focuses on four music productions in Branson—where, it’s noted, the population is 10,520, the number of annual visitors 7.5 million, the yearly revenue from tourism $2.9 billion, and the number of theater seats 64,507 (more than Broadway).
The Presleys’ Country Jubilee—one of the town’s original shows, dating to 1967—stars patriarch Lloyd Presley and his extended family, including a son married to Branson’s Republican mayor. The Magnificent Variety Show (boasting “300 costume changes”) is the project of a young couple, Tamra and Joe Tinoco, and produced in the Osmonds’ theater. Showstoppers! is an extravaganza on a boat. And the Lennon Brothers are part of a clan that also spawned the easy-listening Lennon Sisters, a quartet discovered by Lawrence Welk in the 1950s and a TV fixture for decades.
Wry, fiftysomething mayor Raeanne Presley (“I was marrying a country-music drummer at a time when country music wasn’t exactly the most glamorous profession in the world”) is a matter-of-factly eloquent spokesperson for Branson—and displays endearing emotional vulnerability. The Tinocos, whose four-year-old daughter is among their show’s cast, struggle to keep going in the recession, in the end having to make hard decisions. Thoughtful vocalist Bill Lennon breaks Ozark stereotypes with his unabashed liberalism—making a public-service radio spot for the Democrats and dressing like an aging Berkeley hippie (in fact, the Lennons hail from Venice, California).
The story with the strongest arc is that of Chip Holderman—a gay Showstoppers! performer who’s a devoted dad with two sons—and his boyfriend, a Magnificent Variety Show cast member. Holderman’s ex-wife, who seems nonjudgmental about his sexuality, is remarried to a bully who threatens Holderman after he comes out to his sons. “It amazes me that u like to b with a male and yr 2 boys are male,” the husband rants in one text. As you watch Holderman’s beau, Ryan Walton, bonding with the youngsters over video games and mini-golf, you can’t help rooting for these two men. As with all the stories in this film with no narration, the directors let the subjects speak for themselves and their lives, in all their uncertainty and hopefulness—and sometimes pain.
We Always Lie to Strangers isn’t a music documentary, though it has music in it, from slick to impromptu (and, in the case of the soundtrack by the indie-folk trio Mountain Man, hauntingly lovely). It’s a documentary about making one’s way in a particular part of the world—and the truths along the journey.