Are Yukon musicians born or bred?
Toronto-based filmmaker Alan Black spent two weeks with three tried-and-true Yukon musicians — Gordie Tentrees, Aylie Sparkes and Mikel Miller — to find the answer.
“It’s a little from column A and a little from column B,” Black says in an interview from Toronto.
“It’s a very inspiring place, it’s not going to attract your suit-and-tie banker, but rather someone who has a bit of a creative spirit to them.”
Along with his answer, Black went home with enough footage to cut a 29-minute documentary called Beautiful and Deranged: the Song of the Yukon. It takes viewers into the lives and living rooms of the three singer-songwriters.
And Monday marks the film’s Whitehorse premiere at the Yukon Arts Centre, with director in attendance, along with performances from Tentrees, Miller and Tanya Groundwater.
Beautiful and Deranged made its world premiere last month to a rapt audience at the Dawson City International Film Festival; it screened on CBC Country Canada and, later this year, it will show on the Canadian film and arts network Bravo.
“It’s quite amazing,” says Black. “This was a pet project of mine, something I did out of my own pocket, so I never anticipated this many people would see it.”
Black first came to the Yukon in 1999, after receiving a grant to make a scientific film.
“We came up in the summer and the movie was going to be about how 24 hours of sunlight affects people’s spirits; obviously we couldn’t make that movie,” Black says with a laugh.
“Basically, we got too distracted by the scenery and the music and the people and didn’t really come out with a hell of a lot.”
One night the pair went to an outdoor summer concert by the Yukon River and were struck by the freedom of the people dancing in the crowd.
“Ever since then, I wanted to come back and make this movie about the spirit of the people and their independence — a freedom to explore oneself and be creative and make music,” he says.
“In my mind that’s what the Yukon was all about — this freedom of thought and individuality.”
So he came back in December 2004 and shot Beautiful and Deranged.
The film’s name comes from a CD Sparkes released of 2002, titled Beautiful and Deranged.
“All of the ideas I was having about this movie and the Yukon and the mountains and living life for every moment and being free and creative was really hammered home by Aylie,” says Black.
“His story brings all the points that I wanted to make in the movie into sharp focus.”
“As though chased by the demons of hell, Aylie Sparkes arrived in the Yukon in true blues fashion on an eighth of a tank of gas and five dollars in his pocket,” according to Sparkes’ Music Yukon bio.
Black first heard him play in a CBC concert and fell in love with his music.
“He was a brilliant guitarist and he did these things that I’d never hear before.”
The film, shot in December 2004, shows a candid Sparkes sitting on his living room couch talking about his love for music.
Sparkes passed away in May 2005, after a battle with cancer.
“I knew him really well; he was definitely one of my best friends,” says Tentrees.
“He was really happy to be part of the film and his outlook all the way through it was a beautiful thing to be a part of. I feel really lucky that I got to be a part of it.
“He didn’t want it to be a woe-is-me story, he wanted to let people know how much he enjoyed his time in the Yukon and what he got out of being there,” Tentrees adds.
Black found Tentrees performing in a club around the block from his Toronto home.
“He brought the crowd to its feet and I thought that was very cool,” says Black. “In Toronto, people can be very cynical and it was nice to see a crowd brought to their feet and having a really good time at a concert, which you rarely see.”
The film is about three guys from the South who come to the Yukon and decide to play music, says Tentrees with a laugh.
He’s pulled over to the side of the road 12 hours outside of Whitehorse talking into his cellphone and he’s feeling a bit ragged, but that’s to be expected.
Tentrees has just finished a 32-gig tour playing shows for audiences from Quebec to Northern BC.
And he can’t wait to get home, rest up and perform on Monday evening.
Tentrees was skeptical of the film until he saw the finished product.
“I didn’t know what to make of it at first, even when Alan left the Yukon,” says Tentrees. “Then when I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a huge come-to-the-Yukon; we-love-it-here thing.”
Tentrees, originally from Ontario, settled in the Yukon eight years ago.
“Just like everybody else, I came for a summer and ended up staying,” he says with a laugh. After the move north, he picked up a guitar and began writing songs.
While Tentrees is a relative newcomer, Miller is a 37-year veteran of the music scene.
He has three CDs to his credit: All Roads, The Key and Rounder’s Road.
He moved up to the Yukon 27 years ago, after vagabonding around the country.
“A friend of mine was playing the Kopper King, I was down in Vancouver and he invited me up and said, ‘You’ve got to see this place,’ and here I am 27 years later.”
When he started out, he played bars and coffeehouses; now it’s mostly the festival circuit.
“I have a tendency to think the bars are for young people,” he says with a laugh.
“They cut their teeth on it; it’s a good place to start, a good place to learn.”
Miller has taken odd jobs here and there to make ends meet over the years, but he always goes back to music, he says.
Black says Miller is living the dream.
“I’m a Toronto guy born and raised and I have this side of me that’s interested in going to a cabin in the woods and making movies and making music,” says Black. “That’s what everyone seemed to be doing up there.”
Beautiful and Deranged is Black’s second film with his company Top of the World Films.
His first, dubbed Strongman, follows Quebec car-lifter Hugo Girard through competitions and everyday life.
“It was a big internet hit for a while because there’s a big group of cyber fans who love weightlifting and bodybuilding.”
He’s a self-dubbed, “do-it-yourself” filmmaker, taking producer, director and editor credits on his films.
While an average budget for a documentary film might run $150,000 to $200,000, he makes films for less than $10,000 each.
At 7:30 p.m. Monday the Yukon Arts Centre doors will open for the multi-media evening. The show starts at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door, $8 for students and seniors.