Silver Screen: Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story Is Stranger than Fiction

Silver Screen:  Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story Is Stranger than Fiction
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Who: Bob Streit, Dan Johnson, and Stace England
What: Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story (film screening)
Where:
When: 2011-07-09 - 2011-07-16
Silver Screen: Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story Is Stranger than Fiction
T.J. Jones

Confidence Man was born on the same night that Little Egypt’s best and most popular band, the Woodbox Gang, performed their seemingly final live performance. On September 26, 2009, more than one-hundred of the band’s biggest fans congregated at the Bluelocks building in Makanda to witness Southern Illinois history. Hugh DeNeal, the group’s frontman and cofounder, was going to prison. Having defrauded investors out of more than $500,000 through an internet Ponzi scheme, DeNeal had turned himself into authorities and was awaiting a thirty-four-month sentence at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth for mail fraud.

Two fans attending that Woodbox Gang show were local filmmaker Bob Streit and local musician Stace England. Like many others, the two men contemplated the oddity of the situation. With songs like “Confidence Man,” “Dot Com Machine,” and “Debtor’s Prison,” it didn’t take a genius to realize that the situation into which DeNeal had gotten himself sounded an awful lot like the trashcan Americana that the band would have whipped up.

On Saturday, July 9 and Saturday, July 16, Streit, England, and filmmaker Dan Johnson will screen their documentary Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story at the Liberty Theater in Murphysboro. An advance screening of a work in progress, the nearly finished film will tell DeNeal’s story from his youth and the Woodbox Gang’s gestational stage through the band’s years of touring throughout the United States, and will examine the kinds of high-yield investment programs that DeNeal used to defraud investors and that eventually led to his downfall. The July 9 showing will also see a reunion of three-fourths of the Woodbox Gang-- multi-instrumentalist Alex Kirt, guitarist Dan Geott, and bassist Greg Edwards-- who will perform for audiences at the Liberty. Minus, of course, frontman DeNeal, who expects to finish his prison sentence in October.

The ninety-minute film features interviews with DeNeal, friends, family, and even the postal inspectors who investigated DeNeal. Confidence Man also features songs by the Woodbox Gang, archival footage of the band’s performances throughout the years, and an original score by Kirt.

Director Streit and producer England were both looking to create something together for awhile. While watching the last Woodbox show in 2009, the two men realized that DeNeal was a perfect subject. Streit originally thought he’d like to make a fictionalized version of the story with DeNeal acting as himself. England thought otherwise.

“Stace knew a fair amount of Hugh’s story, and the story was wild enough that a straight-up documentary would be plenty entertaining and plenty wild,” Streit says.

Both men left the performance that night hoping DeNeal would cooperate. England approached DeNeal the following day, and fairly soon, DeNeal agreed to participate. Both filmmakers knew they had limited time-- DeNeal was scheduled to enter Leavenworth only a few weeks later, and at the time he finally left for the federal prison Streit had logged almost twelve hours of interviews with the musician.

The three-man filmmaking team of Streit, England, and cameraman/editor Dan Johnson all came to the project with different attitudes. While England is an admitted Woodbox Gang super fan, Johnson wasn’t at first familiar with their music or DeNeal’s legal situation. However, all three filmmakers, including Streit, knew the story needed to be told. England’s fascination with Southern Illinois history-- his concept albums include Greetings from Cairo, Salt, Sex, and Slaves, and The Amazing Oscar Micheaux-- makes his involvement with Confidence Man a no-brainer.

“I know a good story when I see it,” says England. “The more time I spend with [Woodbox’s] music, I believe it’s a once- or twice-a-generation type of thing. I think it’s that special.”

According to Kirt, an investigator who attended a show undercover even liked the band enough to purchase a CD and a T-shirt. “The irony never ends with this story,” Kirt says.

While DeNeal was fairly easy to convince, not everyone wanted to be involved in Confidence Man at the beginning stages. Kirt was wary about being interviewed, but says DeNeal asked him to participate during a going-away party.

“I was pretty reluctant about being involved because I had a million thoughts racing through my mind at the time,” Kirt says. “My friend was being sent to prison, my career of ten years was about to be put on hold. I had no idea how I was going to proceed with my life, because everything was drastically changing. So the thought of being involved in making a film, being interviewed, or any such nonsense seemed like a ridiculous notion to me at the time.”

It took months of subtle convincing by the already incarcerated DeNeal for Kirt to agree to an interview for Confidence Man. But perhaps the easiest people for the filmmakers to convince were the postal inspectors who caught DeNeal.

“They agreed almost immediately,” England says. “They were really gracious and helped us and the audience understand what had gone down here. They almost saw it as a public service about people needing to be educated about high-yield investment programs, how these things operate. They were an integral part of the film.”

By featuring law enforcement, Streit and England hoped to make Confidence Man as balanced a documentary as possible. While it’s fairly obvious that fans of the Woodbox Gang will come out in droves to see the work-in-progress showing of Confidence Man, Strait is quite adamant that he and his fellow filmmakers are not the Soapbox Gang.

“Obviously [the documentary] was an opportunity for Hugh to tell his side [of the story], and the postal inspectors tell the prosecution’s side,” Streit says. “We tried to be even-handed so people could decide for themselves.”

Supposedly, DeNeal himself was worried that as the film’s subject he might come out looking rosier than he should. “His exact words to me were, ‘I’d rather come off looking bad or compromised in a good, honest movie than look like a hero in a bad, dishonest movie,’” England says.

England adds there was a real intent not to editorialize about the events in the film, and that hopefully each viewer will make up his or her own mind about DeNeal’s actions. A puff-piece would have gone south really fast, England says.

Streit says that DeNeal considered Confidence Man a part of his process of making things right with his victims, the federal government, his fans, and the community.

To many people, especially those who weren’t financially hurt by DeNeal’s crimes, a profound element of the story is the absence of the Woodbox Gang on the local music scene. Whether people thought DeNeal should have gotten nothing more than a slap on the wrist because of his immense musical talent or that his two-year sentence was too lenient, it’s hard to argue that a part of Southern Illinois culture struggles without the sounds of the Woodbox Gang.

As an aficionado of music and Southern Illinois culture, England says it’s hard not to be affected by DeNeal’s music: “If the music wasn’t brilliant, whether it’s Hugh’s writing or the band’s execution of those songs, there wouldn’t be any movie here. It would be a mildly interesting tale of a guy getting into trouble. What makes [the documentary] work and what made us want to do it is that these songs, in many cases, are profound.”

It’s difficult to know if DeNeal’s post-prison music career will thrive or if he and the band will only become an obscure footnote in Southern Illinois history. The odd poetry of DeNeal’s life and art imitating each other is currently just that: poetry. It’s too soon to know if the story will pass into legend. Both Streit and England, however, are doubtful that DeNeal’s prison sentence will prove to be the end of the story.

“Whether you’re talking about rap music and you’re talking street cred or country music and you’re talking about doing time or the outlaw image, if you have success thereafter, then yes, it does [add to the mystique],” Streit says. “If you don’t have the later success, then no-- it was a real boneheaded move. There’s a number of films we can look to, Anvil or The Devil and Daniel Johnston, films about bands or singer/songwriters which led to second chances for those involved. I am hopeful for everybody’s sake, including [DeNeal’s] victims, that in some small way the film helps the band in that fashion. If you have greater success as a musician and are able to pay everyone back quicker, it’ll be better for everybody.”

The rest of the Woodbox Gang will reunite for a live performance for the first time since DeNeal’s incarceration between the July 9 showings of Confidence Man.

“It will be my first time actually singing some of these songs in public,” says Kirt, who will take over DeNeal’s vocal duties on July 9. “But Hugh's talent as a lyricist is a defining point of the film, so the concert will also be about his songwriting talents. We won't be playing any songs with lyrics written by me or anyone else. We will be showcasing Hugh's lyrics only.”

Kirt has also recorded an instrumental musical score for the film based on riffs and chord progressions from Woodbox songs. Fans can purchase the official Confidence Man soundtrack at the screenings, which will also include Woodbox Gang songs used in the film, rarities from live shows, unreleased studio recordings, and even two new songs that were written by DeNeal while in prison and recorded by the rest of the band.

Tickets for Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story will go on sale Saturday, July 9 at 5:30 p.m. for $7. The film will screen at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The documentary will also screen Saturday, July 19 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The live musical performance will only take place between the July 9 showings. Find out more about the film on Facebook.

who: Bob Streit, Dan Johnson, and Stace England's

what: Confidence Man: The Hugh DeNeal Story (film screening)

where: Liberty Theater

when: Saturday, July 9 featuring the Woodbox Gang and Saturday, July 16