NMP Special Edition: “Never Make it Home”

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November 22, 2011 by abbyo

Greetings, readers! Thanks for all your great comments last week, as well as subscribing! It’s great to see the blog getting so much exposure. With Thanksgiving coming up this week, I’ll be taking a break to bake copious amounts of pie and whip up other delicious food items. However, I didn’t want to leave you all hanging, so here’s a shorter post this week about a documentary that will be screening in Lawrence this Saturday. If you’re in the area, and need something to do, you now have this on your radar. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

“Never Make it Home” is a documentary that details the history and final tour of the late Kirk Rundstrom, frontman for the Wichita, Kansas band Split Lip Rayfield. In 2006, Rundstrom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and spent his remaining months of life playing a farewell tour with Split Lip Rayfield before his death in February 2007. As a piece of filmmaking, director G.J. Echternkamp’s documentary is far from perfect. But, regardless of the film’s artistic quality, local musicians and local music fans will find a lot to respect and appreciate in it when it screens at Liberty Hall in Lawrence this Saturday, November 26.

Echternkamp begins “Never Make it Home” with footage shot a year before Rundstrom’s diagnosis. He follows the band on tour, as well as Rundstrom’s own solo shows. Just when it looks like Split Lip Rayfield is about to hit the big time, Rundstrom is diagnosed with cancer. He gets together with his bandmates, including former mandolin player Wayne Gottstein, and hits the road for a series of immensely energetic, surprisingly touching live shows, with fans turning out in droves to support the band.

Echternkamp does a decent enough job chronicling the origins of the band Split Lip Rayfield, and Rundstrom’s relationship with his wife, Lisa, and their two kids. But it’s largely detail-free. Fans of the band looking for a behind-the-scenes exploration of Rundstrom’s life and feelings during this time won’t be satisfied with what they get, and newcomers won’t get the full story. For example, no mention is made of the fact that Rundstrom had no health insurance when he got the diagnosis, and his chemotherapy and other treatments were provided by an outpouring of donations from fans and fellow musicians. Other things that the director does choose to show seem unnecessary. The editing feels a bit self-indulgent and erratic, with the director making his presence and relationship to the band known a few times too often.

But where “Never Make it Home” gets it right is in showing the energy of those final live Split Lip Rayfield shows. The atmosphere is electric, and, of course, the music is fantastic. Those who made it to the concerts included in the film will remember them, and Rundstrom, fondly. Those who weren’t there will wish they had been. Rundstrom and Split Lip Rayfield were a big part of music in Kansas, with a devoted following of folks from all across the state, and a strong network of friends in the music community. The love and support the fans show onscreen is genuine, and helps the audience understand exactly why Rundstrom would want to spend his last days touring, rather than staying at home with his family—his fans were his family as much as his wife and children were.

The fact that “Never Make it Home” is not a great movie is beside the point. It’s not going to win many awards, or get lots of recognition. But that’s okay. It is first and foremost a document of Split Lip Rayfield’s amazing, force-of-nature frontman, and the musical legacy he left behind. For Kirk Rundstrom devotees and newcomers alike, this documentary serves as an affectionate portrait of a man whose life’s work was an important piece of the musical history of Kansas.

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