Monday, September 5, 2011

Hibbing as a 1980's Rock Musical, Er, Perhaps Something More Updated

Confession: I like NPR (yeah, I’m one of those geeks), I love the music of the artist once again known as Prince, and as you already know I [heart] Hibbing.  So color me happy the other day when the planets aligned and gave me all three of my loves in one neat little package—the story “Minneapolis’ Staring Role in ‘Purple Rain’” featured on Weekend Edition Saturday.

It was part of an on-going NPR series examining movies that have a very definite sense of place.  For five minutes and 48 seconds, I listened to clips from one of my favorite 80’s movies and reflected on how Minneapolis did indeed play a major role in the film.  While various interviewees debated the extent of its overall impact, no one could deny that the choice of the artist’s hometown setting was significant for both the film and the city.  One person even mentioned another musician who stopped off in Minneapolis for a year of college, who was originally from—yup, here it comes—“northern Minnesota” (a.k.a. Hibbing): Bob Dylan.  Of course this aside was to demonstrate an artist that had to leave his hometown for New York City in order to achieve success, but I digress.

 The veiled Hibbing reference was what made me smile, and I’m not going to get into reflecting on Bob Dylan and his relationship with our shared hometown.  That’s another story for another time and people who are more equipped to tell it.  What I am interested in are movies like Purple Rain that can anchor and connect people to particular places and how these films affect native citizens, former residents, and people who have never set foot in the area.  Those movies you watch where you can say, I know that place.  I’m a part of it. 

I remember trying to explain my hometown on the Iron Range to friends in Tallahassee during my brief sojourn in Florida.  There was no single film that I could refer to that would do any justice in capturing it.
The two movies that most readily come to mind are Iron Will (1994) and North Country (2005), both filmed in the region.  I was a young teenager when Iron Will was in production.  I smile thinking about how my dad would frequently talk about trying out to be an extra in my grandfather’s raccoon coat. (Note: he never did actually try out, but the talk of it was memorable enough.) I also chuckle thinking of a young cousin of mine (must have been around 6 years old at the time) raised in the Twin Cities, who was obsessed with the movie and thus developed the impression that those of us who live “up north” must all have easy access to sled dogs.

The filming of North Country, based on the story of a ground-breaking class action suit regarding sexual harassment in an area mine, was a much different experience.  I was an adult and there really wasn’t much joking around.  Excitement at having film crews (and the money they brought with them) in the region was palpable.  Someone’s son was a body double for an actor during a hockey scene, so-and-so was working on the crew, and a friend of a friend was helping Hollywood actors master a Ranger accent. It was exciting.  Yet, this did not erase the accompanying tension.  How were these people, these outsiders, going to portray a very raw and shameful part of recent Iron Range history?  The story exposed an ugly reality and although I (and many locals I knew) did not wish to deny that reality, we were concerned that it would bleed into and all over the big picture of the Iron Range and its people.

At the end of the day, each of these movies can tell you something about the Iron Range and by extension Hibbing.  Iron Will, I believe, captures something of the spirit and optimistic determination of this region, while North Country highlights some of the harsh realities of life on the Range by showing both positive and negative aspects of the local culture.

Still, neither of these films is the story of Hibbing.  As far as I can tell there is no Purple Rain for my dear hometown.  Some might argue the equivalent would be a Dylan-penned piece.  They are probably right.
Yet, there are so many other stories to be told, and so many other storytellers who could tell it.  Hibbing is filled with dramatic tension.  Think of the striking backdrops of the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine  or the Hibbing High School auditorium.  Think of the intriguing mystery old foundations north of town invite.  Think of the secrets exchanged and uncovered out at Mesaba Co-op Park.  Consider the people.  Proud.  Stubborn.  Survivors.  People in love with big ideas.  People who are pushed away from and pulled back into a town by the realities of economic opportunity and family ties.

There was the musical Home Again, which I never saw, and Growing Pains, which I did as part of the Hibbing Centennial celebration in 1993.  There is also this valiant effort by students competing in National History Day.

Yet. . . still. . . in my opinion, Hibbing could use a Prince.  Any takers?

Note: A dramatic piece that comes close in my imagination is the musical Mesabi Red (1990) about the 1916 miner’s strike.  Although I have never seen the show (originally produced for the History Theater in St. Paul) listening to the song The Strike Is On always conjures images and feelings of home for me.  Something about it resonates with the pride and strength that I associate with the heritage of Hibbing.  Talented musician Charlie Maguire is one of the few people raised outside of the area that I would say deserve the title of honorary Iron Ranger.  Listen to a clip of the song here on his website.


  1. I agree 100% that we need a film that captures the Range. I really didn't like North Country because it was completely one-sided, gloomy and made me feel more shame than pride. I wish it would have been filmed more as a "wow, look how awesome the women of the Range were to fight this battle for women everywhere" than as the "wow, look how horrible the men are." Especially considering that many of the higher-ups at Ogilvie Norton weren't local guys. The sun never shines in that movie and they filmed at a gloomy time of the year. I probably won't ever watch it again.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JL. I too looked forward to a spotlight on the tenacity of the women of the Iron Range in that film, only to be disappointed by how the filmmakers chose to frame it. I've been wondering a lot lately about what kind of hook could support a movie about the Iron Range. Currently at the top of my list is the story of the secession of Kinney back in 1977. Anyone else have any thoughts?