You wouldn’t think there was a movie centered around country music and the hot button issue of immigration playing in over 800 movie theaters at the moment with the lack of attention being paid to this film by country and entertainment media, and that among other blessings, the film includes an Oscar-level performance from an incredible young actor who can also sing and compose music better than most mainstream country stars at the moment. But you would be wrong.
Country music knows no discrimination. It respects no borders. When it comes to who country music inflicts with rabid desire to listen or even perform it, it will scour all ends of the earth looking for old souls and lost hearts, who find the real and raw sentiments embedded in country music as irreplaceable for soothing anguish by the way the music speaks uniquely to the human struggle, and touches nerves unreachable through other art forms.
The film Yellow Rose was first announced over six years ago with Dale Watson as the star figure, whose story line was to be centered around a young Filipino girl named Rose Garcia who was teased in her small town as the racially-tinged “Yellow Rose” for her love for traditional country music. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Diane Paragas who is also of Filipino descent and grew up in a small Texas town herself, the movie was art imitating life in many ways.
Yellow Rose follows Rose Garcia as she takes her feelings of formlessness and not fitting in, and puts them into country songs. One evening when sneaking into the famous Broken Spoke honky tonk in Austin, Texas with her friend Elliot who works at a local music store, Rose makes the acquaintance of Dale Watson, who eventually takes her under his wing as a promising songwriter and performer.
Since the Yellow Rose film was first announced, the story also evolved to become very intertwined with the immigration debate roiling in the United States. Much of it was shot when the midterm elections in the U.S. were very much centered around immigration policy, and polarizing concerns for migrants caravans, and “kids in cages” were all the rage in media headlines.
However, the portrayal of the immigration issue at the beginning of Yellow Rose sets up an almost too perfect boogeyman of ICE agents with guns drawn, raiding homes and businesses in the middle of the night to take law-abiding and hard-working undocumented immigrants to detention centers to make them sleep on bare concrete floors with foil blankets. Though there are certainly anecdotal stories that portray similar outcomes for the undocumented in America, it’s the over-dramatization of the issue that clearly looks to exploit popular sentiment that will set some eyes to rolling, while a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of the ever-present fear of deportation, and inherent unfairness in the system that most of America’s undocumented experience may have been more effective.
By making the immigration debate so central to the early portions of Yellow Rose, it also misses the opportunity to delve deeper into the Rose Garcia character, why she fell in love with country music in the first place, how she was introduced to it, and the cultural clash it creates, including the racism she may have experienced in her community. Ultimately, a young Filipino girl becoming a traditional country music fan and performer is much more believable than some of the immigration moments in the film from the dramatized cruelty shown to Rose Garcia’s mother, who faces deportation.
But aside for some of these overwrought scenes early on dealing with ICE agents busting down doors, the acting, the music, the overall writing and idea for Yellow Rose is just too strong to hold this film back. Eva Nobelzada, who portrays Rose Garcia, is better than perfect in her role, bringing the emotions of critical moments to life, and building a believable budding country music star who not just sings her own parts in the film, but makes you hunger to hear more. She’s your next favorite country star.
Dale Watson exudes the same magnetism that he does on a honky tonk stage in the setting of the wide screen. At first cast to play a fictional character named “Jimmy Redburn,” the final script has him just playing Dale Watson, and this natural casting that captures Dale in true-to-life environments like The Broken Spoke, and his home and studio in north Austin (including his semi-famous Airstream trailer) results in some stellar moments between himself and Rose, and some of the best of the film.
Among other important attributes, Yellow Rose is one of the most deep dives into the modern Austin country music scene in dramatic film, making it culturally significant beyond the story. The Austin club C-Boys also plays an important role, Dale’s “Chicken Shit Bingo” makes an appearance, and The Broken Spoke is it’s own central character in the movie as it becomes the unlikely safe space for a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant, and its fictional owner Jolene played by Libby Villari reveals another strong suit in the cast, as is Rose’s mother Priscilla, played by Princess Punzalan.
And perhaps most importantly to any music film, Yellow Rose allows the songs to tell some of the most important portions of the story in ways dialog and acting just can’t. Accompanied by a great soundtrack, the original songs written and performed for this film are worthy of great recognition themselves, as is Rose Garcia, (or Eva Nobelzada) as a compelling country music performer and songwriter. Yellow Rose provides just enough “real” in the songs, the people, and the places to really bring this fictional account to life.
As the film progresses, the struggle of Rose to find a home and a way forward as what would be considered a DACA candidate, helps to illustrate and give a face to this issue as a young woman who is willing to work hard, and even assimilate to the only home she’s even known in Texas. This is the payoff for some of the film’s early scenes that may contort some country music fans due to acrimonious sentiments on a divisive political issue. “DACA” is the acronym for the program that is meant to keep undocumented young adults who were brought to the country as babies and toddlers from being permanently removed, often back to country they have no recollection of, cultural or familial ties to, and sometimes don’t even speak the language of.
A tiny budget film that doesn’t feel like one, the biggest shame is how Yellow Rose is going so overlooked amid everything else going on in the United States at the moment. COVID-19 is keeping many from in-person theaters, and ironically, immigration has become a secondary concern at the moment compared to racial strife in American surrounding the black community. If this film had been picked up by Sony Pictures and received a wide released a year ago, it might be the talk of the media, and country music.
But regardless of it’s commercial impact, Yellow Rose is a great film receiving worthy-critical acclaim. And most importantly, it’s a great illustration of how country music is for everyone, as is America. Because ultimately we all hurt, and in ways that country music is a unique panacea for, no matter our color of skin, or country of origin.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
(Editor’s Note: Soundtrack will be reviewed separately)