Charlie Russell

Charlie Russell

Courtesy photo

Montana PBS will screen a new documentary about Montana’s cowboy artist Charles M. Russell in seven locations across Montana in September and October, including the Babcock Theatre in Billings at 6 p.m. on Sept. 30.

"C.M. Russell and the American West" is the first major film exploration of Russell’s life, art, writings and enduring legacy. The documentary tells Russell’s story through interviews with scholars, biographers and experts, along with archival photographs, film and actor-voiced writings and recollections of Russell, his wife, Nancy, friends and fellow cowboys.

The documentary will re-introduce Russell to a 21st-century audience and affirm his standing as a major American artist.

The film suggests that Montanans’ lasting affection for Russell comes from his ability to show Montanans what they remembered, or wanted to remember, about the land and the history they shared.

In the documentary, Russell biographer John Taliaferro says Russell was successful — and revered — because he was genuine.

“Charlie Russell lamented the loss of a West that has passed,” Taliaferro said. “But then went on to convince us and convince himself that that West, that mythic West, had been quite real. And the way he was able to convince us really was because he was so authentic himself.”

Brian Dippie, a Professor of History at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a noted Russell scholar, said Russell had an innate ability to turn his own nostalgia into a national nostalgia.

“It was an idea about loss, nostalgia, sentiment, and a glowing vision of what it would have been like to be there when the world was young," Dippie said. "Russell had the rare ability to project his realization of his youthful dreams, his fantasies, his realities, and make them the world’s.”

Key to Russell’s success was his wife, Nancy, who successfully promoted his art to well-heeled patrons across the country, making him the highest-paid artist in America at the time of his death in 1926.

Russell wrote of his wife, “Without her, I would probably have never attempted to soar or reach any height, further than to make a few pictures for my friends and old acquaintances in the West. She is the business end and I am the creative. She lives for tomorrow and I live for yesterday.”

Co-producer and script writer Paul Zalis spent four years assembling a coalition of art and film historians, Russell biographers, curators, art museums, collectors, cowboys and cowgirls, and ardent fans to tell the story.

Co-producer and Director Gus Chambers of Montana PBS searched photograph and film archives, filmed interviews, directed re-creations, captured Montana landscapes evocative of Russell’s art, and edited the film.

Several partner institutions and private art collectors provided access to the best, and sometimes obscure, pieces of Russell’s art. Two Montana museums, the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls and the Montana Historical Society were central to the film’s success. 

Four well-known film and television actors lent their voice talent to the project: Academy Award-winner and University of Montana alumnus J.K. Simmons is the narrator; Montana resident Bill Pullman ("Independence Day") voices the writings and reminiscences of Russell; Kathy Baker ("The Right Stuff," "Picket Fences") is Nancy Cooper Russell; and Dylan Baker ("The Good Wife," "The Americans") is the voice of Russell’s friend and protégé Joe De Yong.

The film will premiere in Great Falls on Sept. 9.

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.