Irish filmmaker Paul Duane seeks out legendary musician Jerry McGill, who once recorded on Sun Records, before becoming road manager for Marlon Jennings. Sometime into the 1970s, McGill disappeared into a life of crime and drugs, before resurfacing in 2009 as a man who had lived on the lam for decades and served prison sentences under various assumed names. Duane is drawn into McGill’s world, and journeys with him through what could be the last months of McGill’s life, as he is diagnosed with cancer.
There is little doubt that there is something magnetic about Jerry McGill. A true rock and roll outlaw – a lá the songs of Johnny Cash – McGill has lived the kind of life that many could only dare dream about. It is clear that the man’s charisma, talent and chequered past is the reason that Duane sought him out, but this is not a documentary about the past.
Just weeks before work on the documentary started, McGill was diagnosed with lung cancer, and sets out to make some good music before he dies. Duane spent time with McGill during a dark time in his life – it is clear that his mortality has come to the fore of his mind since his diagnosis – but it seems that he is an old dog, and cannot be taught new tricks.
In interviews, McGill comes off as a man who wants to change his life and make amends for his con man, drug running, crime filled past, but in candid footage, it is clear that McGill is a man who cannot – or will not – change his ways. Very Extremely Dangerous arguably shows McGill at his worst; while he is trying to do some good with his life, he is also a one man wrecking ball. McGill tears through people’s lives, taking what he wants and leaving ruin in his wake. At one particular moment, McGill decides to take a taxi to Florida – leaving the filmmakers to foot the bill – and moves into a house belonging to a friend of a friend, helping himself to whatever he wants. It is hardly surprising that his friends offer to drive him home, just to get rid of him.
If McGill’s antics are hard to watch – including shooting up pain medication in the back of a moving car, and physically abusing his girlfriend as she drives – Duane’s way of compiling the film does not help. It seems as though the director became too involved with his subject’s world – even as he grew to detest it – to be able to make an unbiased film. When Duane is enamoured with McGill, so are we. When he is scared, so are we. When he cringes, so do we. This may make for an interesting story to tell, but it does not make a well-rounded film. McGill is a character who quickly reveals himself as quite unlikeable, and Duane’s bias toward him – in all of its guises – does not help.
Very Extremely Dangerous is a look at the later years of a man who fashioned himself as a rock and roll outlaw, despite the fact that he only ever released a handful of songs. Jerry McGill appears to be a man who modelled himself on Hunter S. Thompson stories and Johnny Cash songs, but – as far as we can tell from the film – had very few redeeming qualities. Paul Duane is too involved to tell the story objectively, leaving the film feeling unfocused and biased. McGill has died since the film was made, but this feels to be a fitting eulogy for a man who ripped through people’s lives like a tornado.