Talihina Sky: Doc looks past Kings of Leon image

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The skinny-jeans-wearing rock band whose smash hits include “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” might not seem the most natural choice to have a thoughtful documentary made about them. But Kings of Leon are certainly more than meets the eye, and documentarian Stephen Mitchell, whose film Talihina Sky is currently showing on Showtime, can tell a story. He’s known the band members—three brothers and a cousin—for a long time, back when they were just small-town Oklahoma boys. “I met Nathan and Caleb 10 years ago,” he remembers. “I was working in music publishing in Nashville for a startup firm, and I got the chance to sign Nathan and Caleb to their initial songwriting deals.”

Mitchell knew from the beginning that he had found something special. “They sang for me, and they just blew me away. And then they recruited Matthew from down at his mom’s in Mississippi, and they got Jared, you know, to learn how to play the bass.” It must be noted at this point that, as depicted in the film, Jared hadn’t yet started to learn his instrument when the Kings’ deal was signed. The more Mitchell talked to the guys, the more fascinated he became with their background: “I got to spend numerous hours with them down in their mom’s garage, and just as I was talking with them about their backstory and their lives, it was fascinating to me. And from 10 years ago and I’d always said this is a story I want to tell, a film I want to make. I just wasn’t really totally sure when I’d get that opportunity.”

The making of Only By the Night, which would eventually become the band’s breakout album, provided the immediate catalyst for getting the film off the ground. “Caleb and Nathan called me one day a little over three years ago, this is before they were going into the studio for Only By the Night, and said ‘Hey, do you want to come down here and film us while we make this record? We just want to be raw and truthful and be ourselves.’ And obviously that’s the kind of opportunity you don’t even think twice about, so I got on a plane and headed straight down there. So we started filming during that album and it really rekindled our initial ideas and thoughts we had had all those years previously back in their mom’s garage about really making this thing into a feature-length film.”

But even more than in the studio while the album is being made, the film is based in Talihina, Okla., where the boys’ extended family has a weeklong family reunion every year. “Yeah,” Mitchell says, “the reunion is once a year, the family has this big gathering and they have property down in Talahina. It’s a very small town. I got a chance to go there with them in 2002, just as they were kind of gearing up and putting the band together. It’s a magical place. And their family, obviously, are special people. I learned something about life every time I go down to that park from this really amazing, close-knit family. And that’s what really kind of struck me about the roots of this band, is just how tight-knit this family is and how proud they are of each other. It’s kind of fun when you go down there to the property—me, too, included—they don’t treat the boys like rock stars or me like I’m some big filmmaker or something. I usually get there, and I have a list of chores to do from one of the uncles.”

The family is full of characters, none more colorful than the feisty Uncle Cleo, one of the most memorable personalities you’ll see on film all year. “A lot of the family and the setting and the whole thing you couldn’t cast,” Mitchell laughs. “The story of each one of their lives is just amazing; it blows you away when you sit and talk with them. And they’re some of the happiest, proudest people you would know. Uncle Cleo is a guy that I had been told about forever by the boys. ‘You wait till you meet this guy, he’s hilarious,’ you know, the whole deal. And when I got to meet him in person I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this guy is awesome.’ He always has his Kings of Leon shirts on, and he’s just a really cool guy. I had been filming him a lot kind of verite, guerrilla style, for many years and that gave us a lot of that funny great footage on camera. And he’s just a natural ham, you know you can’t help it, the whole family laughs at him; he’s like a clown. But I had gone up to him that day that we did that particular interview of his where he’s walking around the property, Casey’s filming and I’m off to the side walking, you know, with Uncle Cleo while he’s talking to me. And when I first went to him and said, ‘I want to interview you, we’re going to put the mic on you and the whole thing,’ he said, ‘Oh, okay, okay,’ and then he went and hid for almost a whole day. I couldn’t find him anywhere. And I was literally caught off guard because he is such a ham, and I just thought, ‘I hope I didn’t upset him.’ And the next day I went over to his cabin and sat down with him and said, ‘Man, I really want to do this interview, Uncle Cleo.’ And he said, ‘Yeah I know you do, I know.” And I said, ‘Do you not want to do it?’ And he said ‘No no, I just never thought anybody would really care what I have to say.’ I was completely humbled by the whole thing.”

Talihina Sky is the title not only of the film, but of one of the band’s best songs, a bittersweet ode to their hometown. It’s a telling tie to arguably the most prevalent theme of the film, which is the boys’ ambivalent relationship with their roots, especially with their religious heritage. “The song ‘Talihina Sky,’ ” says Mitchell, “was a hidden track on their first EP that they put out, and it’s a song I’ve always loved. So it was, you know, for me, the obvious choice of a film title, and the end-title track, and the place to build this family story.” The film ends with the band playing a stripped-down version of the song to an empty arena: “It’s a neat song, man. I just love the harmonies on it. It took me a long time to get the boys to agree to both name the film Talihina Sky as well as to play that end title track there at the end. But when they, you know, as executive producers saw that story design coming together and how it fit and made sense, they agreed. And the family loves that song too. So for me it was a natural choice. There are two versions of it out there, one on their first EP, a particular tempo, and then a second version that Ethan Johns produced on the full LP, so we took kind of the rock tempo of that first version and asked the boys to strip it down for that particular performance. It’s something I’m really proud of, that they did agree to perform that song for us and in the manner that they did it. You rarely get hear Kings of Leon stripped down like that.”

Even Uncle Cleo loved the song. “You know, we lost Uncle Cleo a couple months ago,“ Mitchell says. “That melanoma got him that we talk about in the film. But I went down there to Talihina to see him, a couple of months ago and he, funny enough, said to me, on his deathbed more or less, ‘You know, that song “Talihina Sky?” It doesn’t talk so nice about Talihina. But you know what, it’s just kind of a true feeling and the way I feel.’ And he said ‘I’m about to get out of here. I’m about to fly.’”

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