Ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman adopts a big screen persona

York University’s Grammy Award-winning ethnomusicologist Rob Bowman (right) joins a starry cast of music legends in the hilarious mockumentary The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico, which receives its Canadian premiere screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 9.

Written and directed by Michael Mabbott, the film charts the rise and fall of the fictional alt-country singer Guy Terrifico. It’s loosely based on the life of country rock star Gram Parsons, who developed a cult following in the late 1960s and early 1970s for his distinctive sound that blurred the line between rock ‘n’ roll and country music. In an inspired piece of type-casting, Bowman plays a musicologist named Rob Bowman who is researching a book on Guy Terrifico.

In the film, 30 years after his supposed death, there’s word of a new Guy Terrifico album in the works, raising questions as to whether or not the legend is still alive. His colourful career, from the wilds of Canada to the wild times of Nashville, unfolds on screen through modern-day interviews with his old cohorts, intercut with archival footage. The deeply ambivalent reminiscences of his erstwhile musical colleagues – including singers and songwriters Kris Kristofferson, Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm and Merle Haggard, all playing themselves – contribute to the reconstruction of Guy Terrifico’s life story.

“The film is a wonderful send-up of the follies, foibles and mythification of many of our cultural heroes,” said Bowman.

Bowman was invited to join the production following an informal meeting-cum-interview with Mabbott and producer Nicholas Tabarrok, when the film was already rough cut. His ‘screen test’ included an in-depth discussion about the real world of country rock.

“In addition to finding the right fit, personality-wise, for the role, I guess they wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about, to make my character totally authentic,” Bowman said.

Bowman’s role, which included scripted lines as well as improvising an on-the-spot, fictitious interview about Guy Terrifico, grew as the production progressed. For Bowman, who has appeared in many “straight-up” documentaries, the film offered a new, highly enjoyable foray into the world of imaginative fiction.

“It was tremendous fun to do,” Bowman said. “It let me be really creative, to go beyond the standard documentary process and participate in the invention of an entirely original personality.”

Bowman’s real-life work makes him the perfect choice for his screen persona. He has long been a major force in popular music as a teacher, researcher, author and broadcaster. A graduate of York’s music program, he pioneered the study of popular music at York, where he currently heads the graduate program in ethnomusicology and musicology. He is an internationally-recognized authority on artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones (he’s accompanied the latter on tour, and compiled the interviews for their book, According to the Rolling Stones), and is in high demand as a writer, producer and adviser on major documentary and CD reissue projects for record companies in Europe and North America. His publication credits, ranging from country, R&B and gospel to reggae, rap and funk, include liner notes for dozens of recordings and the book Soulsville, USA, a definitive history of the legendary Stax record label. Bowman won a Grammy Award for best album notes in 1996 for his monograph for the 10-CD box set of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, 1972-1975, which he co-produced.

The Life and Hard Times of Guy Terrifico is showing at TIFF as part of the Canada First! series, screening Sept. 9 at 9:15pm at the Paramount 2 Cinema, and Sept. 11 at 9am at Paramount 3, located at 295 Richmond St. West, Toronto. The film will go into national theatrical release following the festival.

For more information about film schedules, tickets and venues, visit the TIFF 2005 Web site.