Eric Shiveley just took a shot at me.
"These look like a couple of music critics," he said, looking into the camera, holding a Luke Skywalker action figure in one hand and a big, colorful, plastic coffee-mug toy of some sort in the other. "They're the journalistic equivalent of the dude in the souped-up Neon who peels out at every intersection."
I probably should be offended, but I'm not. An equal-opportunity offender, Shiveley also took aim at college-radio DJs and record-store owners in his new film, Everyone But You, so I'm in pretty decent company. The real reason I'm not bothered, though, is that Shiveley turns out to be a pretty likable guy – all evidence to the contrary. In the past, Shiveley almost seemed to be working overtime to make himself persona non grata. In everything from his rants on message boards to notes he'd send me directly, he always came off as sort of smug. But now that I've watched Everyone But You, I think I finally understand where the guy's coming from.
When it comes down to it, Shiveley's just a lonely, frustrated musician — like a lot of us — and Everyone But You does a great job, better than almost anything else I've seen, of capturing what it's like to truly be a struggling artist. Shiveley began working on the film nearly two years ago, almost on a whim. Shortly after completing his fourth album, El Diablo, he sold his house in Denver and moved down to the San Luis Valley, where he was planning to build a house and studio on some land he'd purchased there. And just hours before he was slated to break ground in November 2005, he purchased a cheap camcorder at Wal-Mart and began shooting what became his documentary.
The two-hour movie opens with a brief written passage that frames the primary plot line: "The Daily Camera is Boulder, Colorado's biggest newspaper. It's not an alternative rag. In December of 2003, they listed the following as the best local recordings of the year...4) Rose Hill Drive – Rose Hill Drive; 3) Dressy Bessy – Dressy Bessy; 2) Otis Taylor – Truth Is Not Fiction; 1) Eric Shiveley – The Way It's Going to Be."
Then, after detailing the noteworthy things the first three acts have gone on to accomplish, the filmmaker lets us in on what he's been up to: "Perhaps because he's so annoying (or so bad on stage), Eric Shiveley couldn't keep a band together. Eventually, he spent two years making this movie instead."
At times the narrative is windy and tangential (not unlike Shiveley himself) and plays like a stream-of-consciousness vlog. But by the middle of the movie, I was invested in Shiveley as a person, so I was willing to endure the many diversions (his road trip to Texas, for instance, where he visits a friend launching a public-radio station, and the mariachi concert he attends at a local college). The payoff for my patience came a little later, when the chapters become more succinct and the story line unexpectedly poignant. After Monte, the puppy who'd become Shiveley's sole companion, dies, he thoughtfully eulogizes him — and later draws a parallel to making music. "Right as Monte was dying, if someone had appeared and said they could give him ten healthy years in exchange for everything I own, I might've done it," he notes. "But after a few days, when the sick feeling started to fade, I wouldn't have. Sometimes I think if you're trying to get the world to notice your music or paintings, you're always desperate like that, to the point that you don't know what's best or real."
Set in the picturesque San Luis Valley, whose desert-like terrain and gorgeous sunsets serve as its de facto backdrop, the film focuses primarily on Shiveley working on his house by himself, with his voice leading things along. And although a secondary plot emerges during the course of the movie — Shiveley develops an unrequited crush on a girl at his local coffee shop — his soliloquies offer the most moving moments of the film. "I don't think anyone ever finished a song or poem," he remarks, "without needing someone else to like it."
He's right, of course. As much as I'd like to believe that musicians can make art for the sake of art, it's rarely true. Whether we admit it or not, we all need that validation. Otherwise, it feels like we're just spinning our wheels.
As Shiveley reflects on the realities and futilities of being a music man, he testifies with the voice of experience — and exasperation: "If you want to make a living off your paintings, poems, songs or whatever, there are a few things you learn real fast: Cook all your own meals, take good care of your car, and forget any notion you might have about what's fair. Because it doesn't matter, and it doesn't have anything to do with how the world works."
Later, he notes, "If your kid wants to be a writer or singer, they don't need a lecture about how hard it is. The rest of the world will take care of that real quick."
Throughout the movie, Shiveley is inexplicably self-deprecating about his own considerable ability (I've always been a fan of his music and production). But finally he comes to grips with the fact that it's okay to feel beaten down. In fact, it comes with the territory. "It's actually natural that most musicians get so insecure and frustrated," he concedes. "If you write songs, you have a few friends who love them, but you can't seem to get anyone else on the planet to take you seriously. So what do you do? Well, eventually, you break down and pay people who are supposed to be experts for advice. One tells you you gotta think outside of the box, another tells you you gotta stay right in the middle of the box and keep doing what you're doing, and still another tells you you gotta cover every inch of the box with advertisements that they'll gladly sell you. But none of them really believe in you. You're not that stupid. So what do you do?"
"You just build your own [bleep]-ing box," responds a neighbor kid, who then glances over her shoulder at Shiveley's notably boxy house.
Everyone But You is a clever and enjoyable flick. Sure, it's a little long, and you can definitely tell that Shiveley made up much of this first film as he went along, but it's also a touching look at an artist and the insecurities we all share. And his music in the film sounds fantastic, as do the songs he recorded/produced, such as "Faithful," by Victoria Woodworth, that are included.
Although there's no date set yet for a Denver screening, Shiveley says he's planning to submit the film to a few festivals. In the meantime, a three-minute trailer is available on our Backbeat online blog, along with an additional Q&A with Shiveley. Which means you don't have to rely on my word alone that this movie is worth seeing.
After all, I'm just a critic.