‘We kept finding ourselves in Bemidji’: Twin Cities-based filmmaker loved shooting jug band movie in First City on the Mississippi
BEMIDJI—Jack Norton, a 27-year-old director making his first feature-length film, had microphones freeze and fail when he tried to shoot here. He had lenses fog up when he ducked out of snow-dusted winds and into warm, drowsy bars—in a city where people run from building to car to building at least four months out of the year.
“Jug Band Hokum,” a comedy-documentary following Midwestern bands on their paths to the Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands last February, aspires to capture the essence of Minnesota through its people and its places. And when Norton met Anne Baggenstoss, a yoga instructor and spoon-player who grew up in Turtle River, a nearby city with a winsome lumberjack obsession gained its own gravity.
“We kept finding ourselves in Bemidji,” said Norton, whose film premiers Oct. 23 at the Twin Cities Film Fest. “I had been there before, but it’s beautiful.”
Bemidji is the setting for much of “Hokum,” which Norton said unfolds in four parts, each based on a different jug band musician. Baggenstoss, 25, is the leader of the Yoga Jug Benders, a self-described “spoon wizard” who built up her performer’s confidence during open mic nights at Toddy’s, where a scene in the movie takes place.
“We get pretty bendy,” Baggenstoss said of her yoga and her music.
Baggenstoss is like many of the performers who flocked to Minneapolis last February: amateur musicians (and nonmusicians) drawn to a competition where quirks defeat normalities, where first place wins gratification and a broken waffle iron. If people actually performed in this thing (and practiced for it), “there had to be some colorful characters,” Norton said.
Rival band Show Me Your Jugs didn’t know what a jug band was when they entered the battle, believing a jug band was a tube top or sports bra. Bone Jugs-N-Harmony used steel pans, donkey jawbones and other found instruments to cover songs by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the hip-hop group that reached peak notoriety in the mid-1990s.
“It’s frantic and fast-paced,” Norton said, a 90-minute eruption of color and character that was originally supposed to be a “Ken Burnsy” documentary on the history of jug band music.
What it became is a character-driven comedy with appearances by Bemidji’s Paul and Babe, Minneapolis’ Spoonbridge and Cherry, and Minnesota Public Radio’s Garrison Keillor.
“What,” Norton said, “is more Minnesota than that?”
Norton’s and Baggenstoss’ favorite scene happens in front of the Paul and Babe statues here. People who see it will be quoting it, Norton said. And as a Minneapolis resident, Baggenstoss said it was wild returning home, this time with cameras.
The filming was unobtrusive, Norton said, probably not noticeable unless you were within 10 feet. Norton and his wife, Kitty, worked the cameras—small and inexpensive by film standards. Obscurity was by design and out of necessity, the best way to make a film that catches slices of small-town Minnesota, the only way to do it on a $600 budget spent largely on gas and coffee.
A folk musician, Norton used to work and live in Nashville, producing a music-filled kids’ show called “The Zinghoppers.” When he came here to film “Hokum” from December to February, Norton embraced the cold, trying the local pastime: ice fishing. He hung around Toddy’s a lot, struck by how “sweet and kind” people were.
“When we filmed in the Twin Cities,” he said, “we would get kicked out of places.”
Every night during filming, Norton tried to watch the footage from that day. He transcribed it all, filling more than 2,000 pages. He finished the final edit a couple weeks ago.
“I just hope people laugh a lot because of this movie,” Baggenstoss said.
Norton plans to enter “Hokum” in other festivals, hoping to gain a wider audience by the spring. He’s in talks with Netflix, he’s kicking around ideas for companion pieces that would include hard-to-cut footage that didn’t make the film, and he’s open to coming back here for a public screening at Toddy’s.
It might not be the next “Fargo,” he said. But it could be the first “Bemidji.”