By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
During the mid 1970s, bosom buddies Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham decide to make a low budget action comedy about a beer bootlegging road trip, and that silly little comedy becomes not only a cultural phenomenon, but also a massive box office success. Burt Reynolds, who had become a household name due to his performance in Deliverance, became an even bigger star. The success of the film would, however, have its negative effects on Reynolds’ acting career. Former stuntman-turned-filmmaker Needham may have received some moderate acclaim with his directorial debut, but the sequels and other subsequent films would never achieve the praise or the same financial success as Smokey and the Bandit.
Director Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) tells this fascinating true story about the good friendship between Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds and how the two created Smokey and the Bandit. The actual character of the Bandit may as well be the child of both Reynolds and Needham, as he has much in common with both of his creators. The Bandit is a charming rogue, scoundrel, ladies man, and daredevil and both Reynolds and Needham lived this kind of life with reckless abandon during the 1970s. Moss’s film comprehensively covers the earlier lives and careers of these two, the process of making Smokey and the Bandit, and the aftermath of its success.
Moss does an exceptional job of presenting the story and gets very personal with Reynolds in brand new interviews with the actor, combined with archive interviews and other footage from Reynold’s career and life. Needham, who passed away in 2013, appears in only the archive footage, but Reynolds gets very candid about his best friend and former roommate, and sheds much light on the wild life and times he shared with him. Smokey and the Bandit may forever be a cult classic, but the story behind its chief creators is certainly intriguing and entertaining.
During this year’s SXSW Film Festival, I was given the opportunity to sit down with director Jesse Moss, who was enthusiastic about discussing his latest documentary. I didn’t get to interview Burt Reynolds, who was also in town for the festival screening, but was overjoyed as I got to see him briefly as I waited for my turn with Moss.
Mark Saldana: This documentary strikes me as a three part love letter to the movie Smokey and the Bandit, Hal Needham, and Burt Reynolds. Are you a huge fan of the film and these two men who made it happen?
Jesse Moss: I was seven when the film came out–1977. I didn’t know anything about the backstory. In fact, I didn’t know much about Hal Needham. I knew a little bit about Burt Reynolds. I had seen some of his big films from the 70s–Deliverance and The Longest Yard. To me the discovery was this relationship between Burt and Hal and both of these guys who had been friends for so many years. They were risking a lot to make Smokey and the Bandit. I was struck by their loyalty to each other and the willingness to to take that risk. It may at first look like a folly, but it was such a huge hit.
Mark: How did you get involved in making this film?
Jesse: I was talking to CMT who financed the film and Smokey and the Bandit is a perennial hit for them on the network. Obviously, it’s got a very dedicated fan base and we were talking about projects and why this film works. It sets the template for modern action-comedy. I’m not sure how I can account for the film’s success, but this is a good story to tell about Burt and Hal. I wanted to make a buddy movie about a buddy movie.
Mark: Jackie Gleason passed away some time ago, but if for some wonderful reason, he were still alive today, what would you want to know from him? What would you ask Jackie Gleason?
Jesse: It is such a brilliant performance. I would ask him about what it was like to work with Hal Needham and Burt. You hear some of that in the documentary, but I would love to get Jackie’s perspective. Was there tension? Was Jackie trying to eat Burt’s lunch? Were they competitive? They’re both really brilliant comic actors.
The Bandit, which was produced for CMT, will debut on the channel this Saturday, August 6 at 9:oo p.m. CST.