Bob Perilla was downing sack beers in a public park last summer with his buddy Leo Holder, a digital artist then working on a forthcoming Chris Rock comedy, when he decided to do some gardening.
First came the watering: Perilla gave Holder another can of beer. Next, he planted a seed: “What could possibly be funnier,” he asked, “than Chris Rock reacting to a bluegrass band?” Over the following weeks, Perilla tossed more seeds (and beer) at Holder until, finally, his friend let on that a bluegrass performance had been written into the script for Head of State.
Perilla, the 48-year-old frontman of the local band Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, was delighted, if baffled. “How it got from [Holder’s] ears to Chris Rock’s ears is a little hazy for me,” he says. But the details didn’t concern him. Perilla was one step closer to reaching his life’s goal: breaking down the racial barriers that imprison bluegrass.
Ever since Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs perfected the bluegrass style in 1946, the genre has remained almost exclusively a white-folk thing. That bothers Perilla, who sees the music’s appeal as universal. An appearance next to a huge African-American star, he thought, might give bluegrass more currency in the multicultural market of pop culture. Still, there was a chance moviegoers might not get the message. He needed something else.
So Perilla called Akira Otsuka. A 54-year-old computer programmer with his own bluegrass band, Boney Fingers, Otsuka also happens to be, well, Asian. With the New Carrollton-based Otsuka rounding out his band on mandolin, Perilla was ready for a close-up that would prove that bluegrass comes in many colors.
Rock was shooting interiors in a Baltimore mansion; Perilla met him on the set with a demo CD he and Otsuka had recorded days earlier. A producer slipped the disc into a boom box and hit Play. The entire set froze, from the producers to the union workers painting the mansion’s lawn green.
“Chris listened to it for about 20 seconds,” Perilla says, “and then he saidand this is verbatim’Yeah, yeah! That’s it! That’s it!’”
A few weeks later, a DreamWorks producer invited Otsuka and Big Hillbilly Bluegrass back to Baltimore, where the crew was set to film an Iowa-caucus scene. At dawn on shooting day, the band arrived to slip into costume: starched shirts, string ties, straw boater hats. “We don’t normally dress like assholes,” says Perilla. “That was Chris’ idea.”
They shot the scene countless times: Rock, who plays a streetwise D.C. pol running for president, stomps onto a stage, improvises a speech on the merits of corn, and exits while the band behind him tears it up with some raucous string-plucking. Big Hillbilly’s brief appearance, Perilla claims, marks the first time a bluegrass band has appeared under its own name in a major Hollywood film.
It’s not the first time, however, that Hollywood has mocked white culture. Like many another comedy, Head of State trades on the notion that white people lack even a molecule of hipness: White dudes in tuxedos dance badly to Nelly, turkey-necked white ladies bleat “Hizzle fo tha shizzle,” and a socialite crowd flees a building when Rock chants, “The roof is on fire!”
But Perilla and Otsuka aren’t particularly worried that Head of Statewhich earned a first-place $14 million when it opened two weekends agomight damn bluegrass to another stretch in honky purgatory. Movies from Bonnie and Clyde to O Brother, Where Art Thou? have used the music in comical ways, they say, and the result has been more popularity for bluegrass bands. “If it catches someone’s ears,” says Otsuka, “then we’ve got one more listener. Maybe some day I’ll sell him my CD.” John Metcalfe