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'Wheeler' Follows Life And Career Of Little-Known Country Music Singer


A new movie called "Wheeler" follows an aspiring country singer-songwriter who moves to Nashville looking for a break. The film eavesdrops documentary-style on confessional songs that may have viewers seeking out more of the music and story of Wheeler Bryson. Critic Bob Mondello says, good luck with that.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Like most music documentaries, "Wheeler" begins with glimpses of a musician in his native habitat - in this case, a scruffy Texan wrangling horses as a buddy looks on.


STEPHEN DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) You know Bobby, don't you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. Hi, Bobby.

RYAN ROSS: (As Bobby Ross) Hey, good to see you, Jimmy.

DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) You got some fancy camera gear over there, huh?

ROSS: (As Bobby Ross) I told you. I'm here to make you look good, Man.

DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) Bobby, Bobby - all right, Man, bring your toys, whatever you want to do. I'll see you back at the house.

MONDELLO: They soon head to Nashville where Wheeler hits a few open mikes, and Bobby's camera captures his performances, warts and all.


DORFF: (Singing as Wheeler Bryson) Drinking dozen - have to. Time to live it up again. Drinking dozen - have to be sin.

MONDELLO: The camera's also there when Wheeler meets songwriter Bobby Tomberlin and convinces him to come hear him.


DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) I just wanted to introduce myself - Wheeler Bryson.


DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) Never met a real-time songwriter before.

MONDELLO: All of this looks and feels authentic, but "Wheeler" is actually actor Stephen Dorff gone incognito. The star of films like "The Power Of One" and "Blade," Dorff in real life is the son of a three-time Grammy nominee and the brother of a songwriter who died recently. For the film's two-week shooting schedule, the actor wore prosthetics so he wouldn't be recognized and used a few music business ins he had, Tomberlin included, to create a fictional portrait...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's good to have you hear, Man.

MONDELLO: ...In a real setting.


DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) Thank you. I can't believe I'm at the Bluebird.

MONDELLO: The songs are his, which is to say written by Dorff, as was the script when it wasn't just improvised. And the performances were captured live.


DORFF: (Singing as Wheeler Bryson) Hey, hey, Mr. Bartender, I don't want to remember. I just want to surrender now.

MONDELLO: And the audience onscreen - as far as they know, they're watching the real thing - a country music wannabe named Wheeler Bryson who writes his own songs and sings them in this gravelly voice. And to judge from their response, they seem to like him.


DORFF: (Singing as Wheeler Bryson) Pour me; pour me out of this town.


MONDELLO: Also unaware that Wheeler isn't just Wheeler were the musicians with whom he laid down tracks for a studio recording. You have to figure that's impressive, their testimonials for the camera apparently genuine.

Now, when Sacha Baron Cohen does this sort of thing as Borat, he's punking the folks around him for comic effect. Dorff isn't. He's inhabiting Wheeler, sustaining a character in clubs and on the street with the unblinking focus a tightrope walker brings to a high wire.


DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) Yeah, you know, I was coming here, and I was expecting to find a keyboard because I'd been to, like - we went to one bar, and they...


DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) They had a piano.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And it's a guitar town. Ain't any pianos around.

DORFF: (As Wheeler Bryson) So if you want to play keys, you got to bring your own.

MONDELLO: His acting has to be persuasive both to the camera in short bursts and to the people around him in real time. Forget the Texas twang or drop character, and he won't get a second take. Wheeler is more a faux cinema-verite stunt than a propulsive drama, and it doesn't quite earn the ending Dorff and director Ryan Ross had given it. But its central performance is an arresting star-turn, and watching real people react to that star-turn makes "Wheeler" arresting in its own right. I'm Bob Mondello.


DORFF: (Singing as Wheeler Bryson) One's good. Three is better. Make this buzz last forever. Pour me another round. Pour me; pour me out of this town. Pour me, Baby. Pour me out of this town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.