Wil Ridge was all cowboy boots and jet black hair as he wandered the line outside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art this past Friday. He made an effort to greet everyone in attendance for the premiere of Dead Horse Opera, a documentary about Ridge and his path as a country musician. The film was made by Ridge’s friend, Jeremy Fraye, and was shown publicly for the first time ever as part of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Fraye and Ridge met in a theater class at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School - “We were both drama geeks,” said Fraye - and they have remained friends ever since. The pair even moved to Los Angeles together. L.A. didn’t really suit Ridge, so he quickly returned to Santa Barbara to continue cultivating his music career. Fraye, on the other hand, stayed put and began his work in film, specializing in numerous short documentaries that made the rounds on the film festival circuit.
When Fraye finally returned to Santa Barbara he found himself looking for a more personal project. He reconnected with Ridge, “who told me he picked up dead horses for a living,” said Fraye. “I thought, ‘There’s my short!’” Not long after filming began, the project seemed to take on a mind of its own. By the end, Fraye had 150 hours of footage, shot between 2002 and 2008. Finishing became a necessity. “I would joke with Wil, ‘Do you think I’ll get famous or die before I finish this film?’” he recalled.
The full-length end result, Dead Horse Opera, lives up to its name. The footage is brutally graphic and not for the faint of heart. That being said, entering the theater with no expectations, I found the film to be funny, honest, and moving.
Credit must be given to Wil Ridge, whose amicable nature and pleasant conversations with the camera managed to take some of the grimness out of a task as morbid as unloading dead horses into a dump. This surprised everyone, including Fraye. “I always knew Wil to be a funny guy,” he said, but he hadn’t predicted how comfortable he would be in front of a camera. “I don’t think anyone else could have gotten that kind of footage,” said Fraye. “It had to be a friend.” Needless to say, Ridge charmed the audience, who could not stop laughing throughout the screening. Shots of Ridge and his friends watching seals on the Discovery Channel, soldering horseshoes shirtless, and saying goodbye to Wil’s sputtering shell of a Chrysler DeSoto kept me in stitches for a solid hour.
Still, humor in no way detracted from the film’s depth - Fraye and Ridge were able to slip into conversations addressing issues like alcoholism and identity with surprising ease. “With that guitar in my hand, I am a different character,” said Ridge at one point in the film. And while he never seems to be taking himself too seriously - recording in the studio with one foot propped on a box of Coors - when he is singing it is a force to be reckoned with. His live show is not to be missed, and neither is this film.
Jenny Pedersen is an Independent intern.