Photo courtesy Mahalia Cohen
Photo courtesy NW Film Center
The Oregon summer of 2015 was hot and dry. Eastern Oregon’s grasses had turned brown and wilted, forest fires scorched the state and smoke filled its skies.
It was also the summer that director Mahalia Cohen traipsed around the state filming “The Last Hot Lick.”
The movie follows a late-career folk singer taking a second try at stardom while navigating a seemingly never-ending tour through rural and suburban Oregon. A crucial, defining scene takes place in Pendleton, and Eastern Oregon landscapes and themes figure prominently throughout. It stars Jamie Leopold and Jennifer Smeija, two Portland musicians who are not trained actors.
The film has premiered at film festivals in Chicago, France, and earlier this month at the Northwest Film Center in Portland. That screening was sold out, and the film has thus far been well-received by audiences and critics alike.
Cohen grew up in Portland, and she said she spent a lot of time in the Columbia Gorge and with family in Bend and on the coast. Though she now lives in New York City, each of her previous movies have been set in her home state. She said that Oregon is just “where her brain lives.”
But “The Last Hot Lick” doesn’t take place in the green, rainy Willamette Valley. Scenes are filmed in places like Rufus and Wasco, the Painted Hills and a Detroit Lake so low that the characters walk out onto what is usually lake bottom.
“The look of that landscape, that dryness, was something that really worked,” said Cohen.
Two scenes were filmed in Pendleton. In the first, the main characters buy a hat at the Community Thrift Shop and empty onto the Court Street sidewalk. Signage for Master Printers and Prodigal Son can be seen clearly in the background as they converse.
A second, longer scene takes place at the Pendleton Round-Up, which progresses into a musical performance inside the Let ‘Er Buck Room. The bucking horse logo takes up a majority of the screen as Leopold sings and strums. You’ll recognize some Pendleton faces in the backing band: guitarists Alan Feves and Jared Pennington. Carl Culham, Round-Up publicity director in 2015, is noticeable in a shot of the crowd inside the Round-Up Grounds. Locals and rodeo-goers dance in front of the camera.
Cohen said she filmed the scenes during slack at the 2015 rodeo.
For Cohen, the “Last Hot Lick” is “a portrait of all these different aspects of Oregon” and its “diverse landscape and places and people.” Leopold’s character and his songs are at the heart of it.
“Jamie’s music is really like small town American life, and (the film) is kind of homage to that,” Cohen told The East Oregonian.
It is not yet known if Pendleton audiences will be able to see the film. Cohen is working to find a distributor, and Culham said he is working to hopefully screen the film in conjunction with some Round-Up events — but currently nothing is set in stone.
Tim Trainor can be reached at 541-966-0835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.