The eponymous lead of Wheeler (who is for the most part referred to solely by that mononym) is on an archetypical quest for fame and fortune. From the boondocks of Kaufman, Texas, he travels to Nashville, hoping to make it big as a country music star. His talent is recognized almost immediately by the Music City establishment, all of whom are besotted with his down-home character, un-showily soulful voice and heartfelt songwriting. Wheeler doesn’t run into any roadblocks, or even speedbumps, in his race to glory.
If that sounds exceptionally boring, then I have conveyed the feeling of watching the film properly. Of course, a plot summary leaves out the main hook of Wheeler, which is that lead Stephen Dorff performed the musical sequences live, for audiences unaware he was an actor in character. Every real-life Nashville music industry figure “Wheeler” meets along the way is in on the game, playing themselves in the interstitials in order to set up these performances.
So is the point of the film to poke fun at the Nashville scene and the tastes of mainstream country music fans? After all, Wheeler’s songs (written by Dorff himself) are astonishingly generic. Comedian Bo Burnham has a bit “stadium country music,” making fun of the pandering Mad Libs approach popular country takes to songwriting: A dirt road / A cold beer / Blue jeans / Red pickup / Rural noun, simple adjective. Wheeler’s songs are essentially that. But if there’s a joke here, then it’s being delivered in such a dry manner as to be undetectable. The camera never gives much attention to the listeners or probes to learn what they truly think of Wheeler’s abilities. Given that this film is 100 minutes long and treats the audience to an awful lot of musical sequences, it feels sincere in the conviction that Dorff is embodying a gifted musician.
If that’s the case, then the documentary elements seem to exist for no other reason than to puff up Dorff. “Look at how well he pulls this off!” And to Wheeler’s credit, he does indeed give a nuanced performance. Though Wheeler has a stock tragic backstory, Dorff exudes a sense of down-to-Earth world-weariness perfectly well without it. If the blending of real and fictional elements here means that he’s doing a feature-length affectation, then he does this with an ease that’s sometimes fascinating to watch. Wheeler could easily be a total blank, but Dorff is always doing something, even if it’s only with his eyes.
Affectation is the movie’s strongest suit overall. It’s presented as a documentary, and the imitation of the standard music doc style is so perfect that an unknowing viewer would easily think that Wheeler’s story is real, if frustratingly boring. On a technical level, one could have fun paying attention and observing how Wheeler nails even the smallest aesthetic details of the form. This plays into the movie’s general rumination on authenticity. It’s a pity that it can’t parlay this stylistic proficiency and the asset they have in Dorff into any real point.
Director: Ryan Ross
Writer: Stephen Dorff, Ryan Ross
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Audrey Spillman, Bobby Tomberlin, Bart Herbison, Jim Ed Norman, Travis Meadows, Anastasia Munoz
Release Date: Feb. 3, 2017