Yes. You read that title right. The Great Chicken Wing Hunt. Yep.
I count myself as one who loves me some chicken wings, especially if they're done right. And I've had some that mightily impressed me, and some that left me stone cold. But I number myself as one of many an undying fan of the food. Yet I've never even considered the ramifications of being so. It really took Matt Reynolds' truly wonderful documentary, premiering here at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival, to deeply consider the importance of this tangy, burny-hot protein treat.
Reynolds is a former reporter for Reuters, and as such has had his writing published all over the world, in a dizzying variety of publications. Fluent in the Czech/Slovak languages, he's been based in Eastern Europe for many years. But, as a native of what he calls "The Wing Belt" (stretching all across the Northeast United States), he obviously felt a powerful hankering for the signature food of his homeland, because he finally decided to give up his well-paid journalist life for a singular quest. And while his Slovak compatriots (including his girlfriend and much of his eventual film crew) could not imagine making a documentary about sheep's cheese dumplings (apparently the ubiquitous Eastern European equivalent of chicken wings), Reynolds remained steadfast about searching the Wing Belt (and, in all probability, worldwide, since the rest of the clueless world has largely yet to embrace the chicken wing as a go-to meal) for the World's Best Buffalo Chicken Wing. Yes. Insanity. But yet this is a much more complicated and important endeavor than one might realize at first.
Now...I have to stop myself. This is NOT a movie solitarily about chicken wings. No. It is not. This is what makes this movie absolutely colossal.
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is a movie about comradery. It is about passion, and a fine romance, and change. It is about friendship, and taste standards. It is a road movie. And a cliffhanger. It is about gentle competition. It has an underdog, suspense and surprises. It has fantastic music, and a camp of memorable characters. It's about doing something totally wacky, and seeing it to the end. It's about flaming tastebuds, and crunchy textures and truly philosophical discussion about the minutae of standards. And, ultimately, it's about the establishment and recognition of the first and perhaps only de facto American food. Still, as I type that last sentence, I'm astonished. But, as The Great Chicken Wing Hunt establishes, it is a truism. And here's the REALLY stupendous thing: Reynolds, who is a first-time filmmaker, uses his remarkable editorial abilities to transmit this multi-layered story in a manner of 70 short minutes. The film's cutting (also by Reynolds), by the way, is resolutely outstanding.
In his movie's first moments, Reynolds profiles the accidental history of the Buffalo chicken wing, invented in early 1960s New York by Frank and Teressa Bellissimo in a fit of exquisite and frustrated creativity. Then Reynolds summarizes the history of the food's burgeoning popularity (which has still, as of yet, I think, to reach its worldwide apex). Then he quickly moves on to his own story as the questionably grounded ringleader. And then he profiles his host of characters...and here's where things get really juicy.
First there is his girlfriend, Lucie (my very favorite character in the film), who is mystified at her boyfriend's obsession, but who follows him stateside to participate in his quest. I have to pause here and say how funny and utterly captivating I find her in this piece, and how much I empathize with her confusion (Reynolds, inevitably as an involved filmmaker, cleverly casts this extreme outsider as the perhaps amazed American audience's advocate, which is a remarkable directorial choice, and so tremendously correct). Almost every one of her appearances in the film make my heart murmur (like when she is seen crying at the hotness of a particular wing or covering herself up in the morning, reluctant to be a part of her man's "reality show," or her show of empathy at the sacrifices Matt's voluntary cohorts are showing for this effort). In short, I can see why Matt fell for this brave woman.
But then there is Ric Kealoha, a hardnosed and unforgiving wingnut from Hawaii who leaves his pregnant wife on her own in order to take this journey with Matt, and who maybe as a result has maybe impossibly high standards; Ben "The Mighty Thor" Beavers, a 350-pound hulk of a competitive eater who knows how the hell to throw a party; Al Caster, a long-bearded collector of beauty who's hilariously ready to love everything he tastes and who provides much of the film's superb music with his renditions of traditional folk tunes (which will make you wish for a soundtrack, tout suite). And then, maybe most touchingly, there is Ron Wieszczyk, a Kodak employee looking straight at the downsizing of the film industry while being a wing enthusiast seeking a change of focus.
For this Herculean challenge posed towards a busload of ridiculously eager participants, a buffalo wing is defined as: "A deep fried chicken wing coated in pepper sauce and butter." This becomes incredibly important, but I will leave it at that. So Matt and Lucie take these wackjobs on a fervent, multi-week tour of the Wing Belt in order to find the Perfect Wing (which Matt totally insists is in existence...he's a man that believes in perfection all across life's board). In this process, there is discovery, confusion, obfuscation, debate, madness, anger, joy, excitement, and victory. And all of these features are highlighted in more than one guise.
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is a prime example of what I (and Matt Reynolds, as I have learned from interviewing him BEFORE I saw his movie) would like to call the "fun documentary." There are not many important "fun" docs that are burned into movie history. Many music documentaries, such as Monterey Pop, Woodstock, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, could be considered as such (I might also posit the recent Oscar-winning hit Searching for Sugar Man, as well as classics like Sherman's March, American Movie, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Festival, Broadway: The Golden Age, Painters Painting, Man on Wire, Microcosmos. March of the Penguins and Winged Migration as entries into this subgenre). But I defy many movie lovers--even the most hardcore of such--to name many other serious, extremely well-made documentaries that should be considered as fellows in this bunch. But why should the subject of music and art dominate this category? Why should not the universal subject of food be represented here? I think Matt Reynolds is somewhat of a pioneer in this regard. His film is not bogged down with social injustice. Though there are hardships in his movie, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt is not about how unforgiving the world is. It's not about getting one's art to the masses (well, maybe a little bit), or about the travails of lower species (maybe a little bit here, too, LOL). He's concentrating on something that obviously has much love out there (there are 90 million chicken wings consumed on the average Super Bowl Sunday alone). But, even after all that love...you know what? I've never heard one single person posit that the chicken wing is the quintessential American food (and, by the way, I look forward to similar docs about other countries' signature foods). But, here, I believe, this filmmaker proves that this is a U.S.A.-born original. And Matt Reynolds does so in a dramatic, funny, well-constructed, constantly visually delectable fashion (the film contains not only a surplus of sumptuous camerawork, but also expertly produced, wisely-placed graphics by Benjamin Cheek).
I could gush on and on about The Great Chicken Wing Hunt (and I feel moved to pose that Wingnuts would be a suitable, though perhaps too cute alternate title for this doc). At any rate, it's now one of my bonafide best movies of 2013, even though it it nominally unreleased (and I truly hope it gets distribution immediately). But I close with this: to watch this film at full force, and with maximum enjoyment, I'd advise you to have a bucket of wings near you, because yer gonna be extra mouth-wateringly hungry midway through. Let me also advise you to have some tissues at hand as well. These will not be necessarily needed as remedy for the heat from your cache of wings. This is a movie that will move you to cry on its own.
Below is my fun interview with Matt Reynolds, shot and edited by my great friend Rich Gedney and conducted at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival as part of our coverage for MOVIE GEEKS UNITED!