When Robert Gordon was writing his seminal 1995 book It Came From Memphis, a name kept popping up amid the wide cast of musicians and freaks who populated the city's music scene. "I knew around here he was a legend," Gordon says. "A great talent who kind of got on the wrong side of the law, liked it, and stayed there."
Jerry McGill had done one rocking single on Sun Records in 1959, and had reportedly been a crony of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings before disappearing in the 1970s. Years later, when Gordon was working on Stranded In Canton, a documentary he edited together out of the raw, chaotic video footage of the Memphis underground shot by William Eggleston around 1973, he found some scenes with someone who was said to be McGill brandishing a gun and playing Russian roulette with art provocateur Randall Lyons.
Gordon had filed the story of the missing rockabilly outlaw with the rest of his extensive collection of Memphis music history, never really expecting to find out what happened to him. "Then Jerry popped up on the internet," says Gordon.
It was 2010, and McGill, now 70 years old, had just gotten out of prison, and Irish director Paul Duane wanted to meet him. "Paul is a guy who is drawn to characters, like I am," Gordon says.
Duane got a grant from the Irish Film Board and flew to America to shoot a documentary about the outlaw that would become Very Extremely Dangerous. "They trust him to turn a really out-there idea into a good film. I'm not sure they expected as out-there a film as this one," Gordon says.
Three days before the cameras rolled, McGill was diagnosed with lung cancer. "He bared his soul. He was staring into the face of death," Gordon says. "He said, 'Ask me anything'. So we got these great true crime stories."
Word spread McGill was back in town, and a recording session sprang up at Sam Phillips Studio with Roland Janes and a host of Memphis all stars, and a gig was scheduled for the Hi-Tone. But Duane and Gordon, tagging along with the cameras, soon discovered they had gotten more than they bargained for. What they thought was going to be a story of redemption turned out to be a film vérité ride-along through the Memphis netherworld with a genuine hard drinking, hard drugging man who always seemed one shot of rotgut away from epic violence. "What none of us could know when we started this project was that we were catching a 70-year-old outlaw on what he thought was going to be his last great tear," Gordon says. "There were times when we thought Jerry had a death wish, and we were being careful to not go with him when he finally took himself out."
With Duane flying back and forth from Dublin to Memphis and Gordon acting as producer and often camera man, Gordon says they captured a once-in-a-lifetime story. "It was a really interesting combination of me, the local, and Paul, the outsider. It took his distance to see this. In the beginning, Jerry was charismatic, but there are lots of charismatic people. It took Paul's vision from afar to see that there was more going on here, and we needed to persevere. This movie is made out of our perseverance. That's what happens in a documentary. All of the sudden, the movie is not about what you thought it would be about. So you have to enter the editing room and find out what it's about."
One day, when the duo picked up McGill to take him for a doctor's visit, McGill demonstrated for the filmmakers how to prepare and inject prescription opiates while the camera, and the car, rolled. "When he shot up in the back of the car, I couldn't believe it," Gordon says. "Every time I would go out with him, it would be a new surprise, until I kind of thought I had seen it all. That just goes to show you how naive I was."
Very Extremely Dangerous screened at Indie Memphis in 2012 and will soon be released on DVD by Fat Possum Records along with the film's soundtrack, a retrospective of McGill's work with some Memphis legends, including Jim Dickinson and Mud Boy & the Neutrons. "Jerry's album is really great," Gordon says. "To me, it's got some of the best Mud Boy and & the Neutrons performances ever. When I heard them, I was shocked that something this good had never made it out of the box. If the only thing that this movie accomplishes is to bring attention to the album, it was all worth it."