Spotlight on: Gypsy Davy

Posted February 21, 2012

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, buzz is building for Gypsy Davy, which has three screenings at this year’s True/False Film fest.

As the T/F program guide tells us,

David Serva Jones was a damned good flamenco guitarist, especially for an American. He was also a serial heartbreaker who left wreckage in his wake, including a handful of children by various mothers. One of his estranged children, director Rachel Leah Jones, seeks to arrive at “Year Zero” with her dad after more than three decades by collecting emotional, unguarded testimonies from those who could feel him “strumming our pain with his fingers.” The wandering Mr. Jones makes for a powerful enigma: while mostly tight-lipped, he is an insightful man whose music is profoundly passionate, drawing on the guitar magic of his mentor, flamenco master Diego Del Gastor. Making clever use of shuffled chronologies, Gypsy Davy is an engrossing yarn, with director Jones’s deft, wry voice wrestling with one man’s hard-to-pin-down legacy.

One of the main attractions of the film, alongside the vexing and important questions of family history, is, of course, the music. Here’s a representative sample of Jones’s wonderful Flamenco guitar that saturates the film:

And a clip from Gypsy Davy itself, which also highlights the bizarre and evocative lyrics these songs often carry:

Jones’s daughter, the film’s director, writer, and behind-the-camera star, Rachel Leah Jones, will be on hand at all the True/False screenings to discuss her film. She’s an articulate and passionate filmmaker, and it will be a wonderful opportunity to hear her expand on her process and her personal struggle in making the film. She recently described her approach to nonfiction film in a Q&A for Indiewire:

I wanted to be a lawyer, at heart I’m an activist, and I ended up a filmmaker. Go figure. I also wanted to be a photographer, but ended up adding so many words to the pictures, at first in captions and then inside the prints, that I segued into film (had I been a lawyer I’d probably be a maniacal exhibitor of evidence and artifact). Image, word, sound, music—they just go so nicely together, and putting them together can be so nice. And narratives and the politics of representation and… that’s what making movies is about for me: creating meaning and asserting it and getting people to think and feel; never film for film’s sake, always in the interest of an agenda, usually subjective, always collective.

…And she expands upon this idea in Filmmaker magazine:

I don’t make documentaries because I believe in “reality” as such, but because I’m a sucker for its narrative impact—especially when it is “subjectively” rather than “objectively” told.

A glowing review continues this “true/false” thread, in Variety:

Much of this is “stranger than fiction,” all of it as engrossing as a flavorsome, twisty literary novel. [Gypsy Davy] is full of colorful personalities (especially the intelligent, headstrong women David had serial long-term involvements with while tomcatting on the side), as well as music — mostly casual performances in cafes and living rooms, but also some archival and recent concert excerpts….

The impact of [Jones’s neglect as a father] has differed among his children, ranging from a flamenco-prodigy son to another, Marty Jones, who gave up a highly successful music career (as co-founder of rock group Counting Crows) because he feared repeating his father’s behavior.

I think we’re going overboard here—just go see the film!—but to round things out, here’s some more of Jones’s wonderfully rich back-story, from the East Bay Express:

David Serva is really David Jones, the son of retired U.C. Berkeley Political Science Professor Victor Jones. His lineage is white Alabama, not gypsy Andaluz. A graduate of Berkeley High, Jones left home at 15, played blues with local legend K.C. Douglas in a San Pablo avenue garage and folk music with his friends in cafes along Telegraph Avenue. A teenage runaway from the New England boarding school he briefly attended, Jones, according to his oldest friends, grew up fast from a shy, mumbling, bespectacled introvert who studied Latin (but who, to the amazement of his school chums, once beat up the local bully for terrorizing them), to become a streetwise, funkier California version of Holden Caulfield. He spent his 17th birthday in a Miami juvenile detention center, shortly before taking his first trip to Spain in 1959 to pursue his destiny as a flamenco guitarist. A star attraction in the flamenco room of San Francisco’s Spaghetti Factory in its heyday in the sixties, Serva was also the stage guitarist for the Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha, and played in a Greenwich Village cafe only a few blocks from where Bob Dylan was strumming the ballad of Gypsy Davy (no relation). David Jones had become David Serva, a prodigal Berkeley native son who successfully assimilated himself seven thousand miles away from home into the closed, clannish, and exotic world of gypsy flamencos.