The untold story of Santa Rosa Beach resident and music great Duke Bardwell is now being shared through a new documentary film entitled “Duke & The King.” Quickly gaining audience acclaim on indie film circuit, the documentary will be screened at the 30A Songwriters Festival on Saturday, Jan. 19 and Sunday, Jan. 20 at the Seaside Repertory Theatre. Part documentary, part concert film, “Duke & The King” tells the story of Bardwell, one of the great, unheralded talents in American music. Bardwell’s story demonstrates what can happen when the right words and music come together to alter destiny and, in doing so, offer a shot at redemption.
The film made its world premiere in 2012 at the Nashville Film Festival, was screened to a packed house at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival in August, and won “Favorite Feature” at the recent SoAl Film Festival in Mobile, Ala. Next stop, a special screening at the 30A Songwriters Festival in January.
“It’s very gratifying to see and experience how audiences react to Duke’s story,” says Kris Wheeler, the film’s co-director, and a resident of Canton, Ga. “The response has been great, but it’s been a long time coming. We actually started the project back in 2006.”
“Duke & The King,” which is Wheeler’s second feature-length documentary, reveals a powerful story of the danger in meeting one’s hero, especially if your hero becomes your boss and your boss happens to be the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“This is a story that is ultimately about the power of songwriting. Screening ‘Duke & The King’ in the environment of the songwriters festival is a dream scenario," said Wheeler. "We’re honored that the festival is showcasing the film.”
Wheeler shared directing chores with fellow filmmaker Wayne Franklin and the filmmakers say “Duke & The King” also makes the case that Bardwell’s time with Elvis ultimately derailed the career of a man many believe should have been a star in his own right.
“Over the years, we’ve come across a lot of loose theories and mumblings about a rift between Duke and his famous boss,” says Franklin. “This film sorts out what’s true and what’s not.”
There is much more to this story than Bardwell’s tumultuous relationship with the Elvis organization. At its heart, the film explores the gift of songwriting and the power of music to shape lives. With moving stories and inspiring live performances from Bardwell recorded at the famed WorkPlay Theatre in Birmingham, Ala., the documentary chronicles Bardwell's journey while showcasing his immense talent.
“On one level, Duke’s story is about the futility in pursuing fame, but there’s more to it than that. Through an obscure song, the film makes a compelling argument for using your gifts even when fame and fortune elude you,” says Franklin.
As a child in 1957, Bardwell heard one of Elvis Presley’s early songs — “Old Shep” — and was instantly moved by the raw emotion and unabashed sentimentality of the ballad. From that moment on, his life was changed.
“It was the first time a song had ever reached into my heart and made me cry,” says Bardwell, who spent much of his life in Baton Rouge, La., but has lived in Santa Rosa Beach since 1985. “And that song about that old dog made me cry. It was my first brush with songwriting, and I knew then that someday I’d have to find a way to play music for a living.”
The film follows the journey that led Bardwell to his own failed shot at fame, and ultimately found him standing in the presence of The King. It's the story of two men: one who should’ve been famous, the other more famous than any who came before or since.
“I got the idea for this film back in 2005,” said Wheeler. “It started out being a story about the journey of a song. But, in time, it grew into something bigger — a film that was transformed through various iterations over the years before finally evolving into ‘Duke & The King.’ We’re eager to share Duke’s story and his gifts as a singer-songwriter with music lovers the world over. After 45 years, he’s due.”
The film also features appearances by songwriting greats Kenny Loggins, Tom Rush, New Orleans legend “Big” Luther Kent, along with Walton County songwriters Franko “Washboard” Jackson and Bill Garrett. Following each screening will be a Q&A session with the filmmakers and Bardwell. For more information on Duke & The King, visit www.facebook.com/DukeBardwell or www.dukebardwell.com.
Festival weekend passes are available for $150 and can be purchased at www.30asongwritersfestival.com, at the Cultural Arts Alliance office and at Central Square Records in Seaside. Net proceeds from the 30A Songwriters Festival benefit the CAA and members of the CAA will receive an additional 10 percent off weekend passes. Call 622-5970 to become a member and take advantage of the discount. For more information on the 2013 30A Songwriters Festival, including a full list of artists, venues, accommodations packages and to purchase tickets, visit www.30asongwritersfestival.com.