Canadian honky-tonkumentary a paean to Toronto's 1960s country-folk heyday - and one guy in particular
Matt Murphy, onetime frontman for Halifax band The Super Friendz (and more recently, The Flashing Lights), is on the verge of becoming even more famous. As someone else. On the eve of the release of The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, Murphy must be preparing to be most-often recognized on the street as the screen incarnation of Terrifico, a hard-living enigmatic country-rock cowboy from the 1970s who expired (or did he?) in a rain of bullets and pills just as his star was at its zenith.
First-time director Michael Mabbott’s The Life and Hard Times is a rollicking "honky-tonkumentary" destined to immortalize Terrifico, who, of course, never existed in the first place. So to be fair, Murphy is in fact about as Terrifico as Terrifico ever was. Or is.
Shades of It’s All Gone Pete Tong? Maybe, a little. But despite the gimmick (and the impressive fact that Mabbott has such luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, Levon Helm and Merle Haggard in his film, going along with the gag), repeated viewings of The Life and Hard Times certify at least one fact: Terrifico was one hell of a songwriter, especially for a guy who never existed.
Murphy, who co-wrote the songs for the movie, asserts that Terrifico’s songs were a labour of love, even if the acting part of it all was sort of an afterthought.
"I was cast kind of immediately," said Murphy when I caught up to him at the Toronto Film Festival, where The Life and Hard Times premiered after a showing at South by Southwest. "Mabbott called me up years ago and wanted help finishing some of the songs, and he mentioned also there was a chance I would get to play Guy. But he couldn’t promise anything because he was a first-time director, and I’d be a first-time actor…
"I was doing the music at the same time, right up to the time I went to Toronto to do it – I didn’t really think about the acting. I figured, ‘Well, I’ll memorize the lines,’ and I had been doing a country persona on this radio show I did with my brother in Halifax, called Country Pickup with Coonskin Kid and Little Oren Hoggett – that was me. He was a very ornery personality, a draft-dodging redneck, and I sort of thought he might want that from me. But [laughs] he didn’t want that.
"We just talked a lot about who he was, and the music dictated who he was. We looked at the Rolling Stones, because we wanted a rock’n'roll influence, but none of that went into my preparation, I just tried to act naturally, as Buck Owens would suggest you do, on camera. I tried not to just do a Gram Parsons send-up, though that would have been an obvious correlation because of the rock, and country, and his biography. But I tried to avoid that. I didn’t go too hippie, in other words."
Terrifico’s story is cobbled together, verité style, from "live" concert footage and a wealth of beautifully staged and aged period photographs from his rock’n'roll lifestyle, turning Toronto in the ’60s into the kind of place/time conflation like "Nashville in the ’50s" or "Austin in the ’70s" that sends chills up the spine of music-history fetishists.
Murphy, now back to touring with his musical projects after the shoot (he was about to play Pop Montreal when I met him in Toronto), was awed mainly by the challenge of being Terrifico musically, considering his tendencies toward hero worship.
"I just met Kris Kristofferson here in Toronto, and that was really great. In fact, that was the hardest thing about writing the music for the film with Michael, because, well, we’ve got Kris Kristofferson on camera saying this guy was a genius and a poet of some kind, how are we going to make the music, fake the music? We’re going to have to do something of a bohemian con job on people at some point, because not all of the music is going to be great, and none of it is going to be, you know, [singing] "take the ribbon from your hair…" or Sunday Morning Coming Down. It was a real challenge, you know, but it was kind of fun to try."
The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico