That’s because William “Joe” Saunders, an SMU graduate and the director of the feature-length documentary, is the grandson of Mize, whose influence helped to shape a music scene during the 1940s and 1950s that made the central California city a companion to Nashville during its heyday.
The film will show on Friday night at the Angelika Film Center in Mockingbird Station as part of Dallas VideoFest, with Saunders in attendance to host a question-and-answer session afterward.
Saunders tracks the career of Mize, whose career started in Bakersfield along with such luminaries as Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Saunders compares that era, with its roots in Texas swing music, to the rise of the grunge-rock scene in Seattle during the 1990s. Eventually, the blue-collar city became home to the most impressive collection of honkytonks in the country at the time.
“That’s kind of how it was in Bakersfield in the 40s and 50s,” he said. “It started as kind of dance music, and with the introduction of amplifiers, it started fusing with all these different types of music. It was a really interesting fusion.”
He became interested in the subject because of the family connection, but never knew much of Mize’s background because a stroke and other health problems left him unable to speak for several years.
Saunders later learned that Mize essentially sacrificed fame to spend time with his family, and never fulfilled his star potential as a result. The film includes interviews with Haggard, Willie Nelson, and the late Ray Price.
“I didn’t know the significance that Billy had. He couldn’t speak and he’s extremely humble, so it was difficult to get stories out of him,” Saunders said. “I wanted to avoid a traditional country-music history lesson. I wanted to make it something a little more than that.”
After graduating from SMU, Saunders went to graduate school at Columbia and got a job in Philadelphia working for NFL Films. His father, Al Saunders, is a longtime NFL coach who won a Super Bowl as an assistant with the St. Louis Rams in 1999. He currently works for the Oakland Raiders.
Joe Saunders won a Sports Emmy in 2004 for a short documentary about a sports bar. Since leaving NFL Films in 2008, Saunders has tried to branch out to features and documentaries about other topics.
“I was getting tired of just doing sports stuff,” he said. “I started thinking about other things.”
Billy Mize premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and has been touring the festival circuit since in hopes of landing a distribution deal.
In the meantime, he admits the time spent filming the documentary probably helped to bring his family closer together.
“It was great on a personal level,” Saunders said.
The film is not the only one with SMU ties to screen at VideoFest. Gayle Embrey, a Hockaday graduate and a co-founder of the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program, directed Beyond the Walls, which will screen Saturday. The documentary tracks the stories behind wall murals around the world.