“Southlander”: Steve Hanft’s shambolic, shaggy dog sunshine noir with cameos by 90s indie rockers and more

By on June 6, 2016

You may not have had the chance to see Southlander when it was briefly screened at film festivals and as a midnight movie in L.A. in the early ’00s, but now that it’s streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel, you have another opportunity to see this shambolic, shaggy dog L.A. story, similar to so-called sunshine noir movies like The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice, and others.

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The 80-minute film from 2001 is a collaborative effort between its creator/director/co-writer, Steve Hanft, and the film’s co-creator/co-star Ross Harris, who wrote the script which was then improvisationally lensed.

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Steve Hanft

The plot here concerns a desperate keyboard player named Chance — played by Rory Cochrane, who you may remember from Dazed and Confused, Empire Records or TV shows like “CSI: Miami” — who goes on a surreal journey in order to find his stolen ’69 Molotron synthesizer, which is stolen from his car shortly after he’s purchased it from a seller who had placed a classified ad in the The Recycler, a folded-up weekly newsprint publication typically found at 7-Elevens and other convenience stores.

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The original name of the film, in fact, was Recycler — it was changed to avoid trademark issues — and that provides a clue as something central to the film’s core, as the publication, pre-internet, was what a lot of musicians used to find like-minded strangers who shared their same musical influences (the members of Guns & Roses and X both used it to find each other, in fact).

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Rossangeles (Ross Harris) and Chance (Rory Cochrane)

In Southlander — subtitled “The Diary of a Desperate Musician” —  the synth provides a way for him to escape from L.A., where he doesn’t fit in (“I didn’t have the haircut, couldn’t understand the clothes,” he says. “I figured maybe this keyboard was my ticket out of town.”).

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Rocket (Beth Orton) and Future Pigeon

The weird rare synth also provides Chance a new sound to offer the dub-pop band Future Pigeon, who are just about to embark on a tour, but also a way for him to get to know their lead singer, Rocket (the lovely and somewhat eccentric British neo-folkie Beth Orton).

Chance’s brief encounters on his journey to find the stolen synth puts him within weirdo range of a whole host of people on the margins, improvised by many recognizable faces, including Richard Edson, Laura Prepon, Ione Skye, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs III (who plays a faded funk superstar named Motherchild in one of the film’s funniest cameos).

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Motherchild (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs III) and Chance (Rory Cochrane)

There’s also quite a few cameos by 90s-era indie rockers (Beck, Jennifer Herema of Royal Trux, Kurt Lilly, Hank Williams III, and others, some — like Ward Dotson of Gun Club/The Pontiac Brothers/The Liquor Giants, and Chris Gunst of Beachwood Sparks — who are seen ever-so-briefly in the background).

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Bek (Beck) and Chance (Rory Cochrane)

Hanft recently told Night Flight that working with late, great Billy Higgins — a house drummer for Blue Note Records who played on dozens of classic hard bop and free jazz classics during the 50s and 60s, including albums by Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and many more before his death, shortly after Southlander was completed, in May 2001 — was one of the highlights for him.

“He was just an amazing musician and really held the spirit of music in his heart. That’s what we were after, trying to get to the spirit of music with our surrealist keyboard film, and Billy had it, and played a piece of music just once as we filmed him, and that was the piece in Southlander, called ‘Green Room.’ I couldn’t believe how cool he was.”

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Billy Higgins in Southlander

Hanft also reminded us that Southlander, his second feature, was “done quickly over a period of a few weeks to get it done before the production company we did it through closed up shop (bankruptcy), since they owed me a feature film in my contract,” and he says he found it to be torturous to shoot on digital video. (Propaganda Films — once a haven for directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh — went belly up in late 2001.)

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Chance (Rory  Cochrane) with Chris Gunst of Beachwood Sparks in the background

Hanft: “It was a crazy unorganized shoot that unfolded it’s own way, and we found the sequence through experimenting during the shoot and talking the through line at the House of Pies in Los Feliz. The production company made me shoot it on digital. I was fighting for film, but they wouldn’t let me. That’s kinda why we improvised most of it because we figured features shot on video looked too crummy so we tried to make it work with the crappy camera we had to use, which sucked then, but now I think it’s kind of funny how low quality the image is. It was a crazy experience that just barely came together.”

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Motherchild (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs III)

Hanft and Harris are both veteran music video directors: Hanft did several for his good friend Beck, including “Loser” and an MTV award winner,”Where It’s At,” and has an impressive list of credits over at IMDB, while Harris has lensed Elliott Smith’s “Coming Up Roses” and “Miss Misery” videos.

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One of the best things about the film is the cameo appearance by the late Elliott Smith, who appears as a tour bus driver in the film (and that’s his hands playing the Moletron, not Cochrane’s). He contributes a new song, “Splitzville,” heard at the movie’s end, as well as another previously-unreleased track (Smith died in 2003; his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Chiba, also appears briefly in the film).

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Elliott Smith — with a robotic arm — also appeared in Hanft’s film Strange Parallel (1998)

Hanft’s retro-ish comedic film — which occasionally feels like a parody of cheesy 80s-era music videos or 70s-era TV cop shows, much like the Beastie Boys’s video for “Sabotage” was — captures the late 90s underground L.A. music scene better than any other film we can think of, which makes Southlander something of a time capsule that you’ll enjoy revisiting if you lived in its proximity, as we did, or an exciting new place to time-travel back to if it’s a world you’re wholly unfamiliar with.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.