Even before its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Hounddog was known as "the Dakota Fanning rape movie." The film got a lot of notoriety but for more than a year, until this spring, couldn't get a distributor. It's a revealing fact. Hounddog may be Dakota Fanning's grown folks' movie, but it's not a good one.
Fanning is Lewellen, a grubby, barefoot Southerner who obsesses over Elvis. The film seems to be set in 1956 or so, though there are some musical anachronisms. But no mind: Hounddog exists in an ooey-gooey, amorphous Southern soup that never did exist anyway.
Lewellen can't get enough of "Hound Dog," and she bursts into song and a sashaying dance to the tune every few scenes, always reminding her audience that she's "gonna be a singer someday." The closing credits list each of these outbursts, and "Hound Dog" is performed eight times in all: five times by Fanning, twice by Elvis, and once by R&B singer Jill Scott, who plays Big Mama Thornton (the original, pre-Elvis "Hound Dog" singer).
Lewellen's daddy (David Morse) approves of his daughter's fixation, though he up and R-U-N-N-O-F-T, leaving her behind with his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn). Lewellen's Grammie (Piper Laurie) is not a fan of Elvis, occasionally shouting at Lewellen to "stop playin' that devil music." From the pulpit, the local preacher decries the harmful effects of rock-and-roll.
Afemo Omilami plays the Magical Negro. I mean the little-white-girl whisperer. I mean the snake-medicine-man. I mean Charles the stableman. He's the only one who really understands what Lewellen's going through, though, after another blue-eyed-soul rendition of "Hound Dog" atop a tree limb, he asks her, "When you gonna sing real blues?," emphasizing that "Elvis is a white boy singin' black music."
True enough. But throw in a slew of biblical references, too. Lewellen and her pal Buddy (Germantown native Cody Hanford) are, sometimes, stand-ins for Eve and Adam. Their Southern swamp is downright Edenic in its primal nature, and the movie opens with an I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours Genesis genital allegory.
There's no shortage of snakes slithering around to drive the point home (snake-o-phobes beware this film), and if you take the metaphor all the way — which you're intended to do — then it's music that is the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
No doubt there's an interesting story in here, a Fall of Man coming-of-age tied to the advent of rock-and-roll, but Hounddog is not it. It doesn't help that Lewellen is also a Christ figure, that the acting is something to be missed, that the whole production (Deborah Kampmeier writes and directs) is uncooked, and that the Southern accents and period details are as authentic as a Beale Street Monday Night.
God help me, I even think Black Snake Moan (which premiered at the same Sundance with Hounddog) got more mileage out of some of the same ideas than this one does.
Opening Friday, September 19th