Elmore’s Last Great Legacy

Now that Elmore Leonard’s death has reminded everyone how good he was, I hope to meet more people who have caught up with the last great work in his legacy – the tv series Justified, which got only passing mention in his obituaries on this side of the pond.
On my sofa, we followed it sporadically when it was tucked away on 5 USA and we are now working through the first four series again, via Netflix, having got our eye in a bit on telling one redneck Nazi from another.
Leonard did not write it all but it is centred on a character he invented, the righteous but ruthless Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens, and it is a treasure trove of lines and characters he has either had a hand in or would have approved of – written by a team who allegedly wear wristbands marked WWED, to remind them to ask themselves What Would Elmore Do?
Leonard was often disappointed by the films of his books, but Jackie Brown and Get Shorty got the tone pretty well and then HBO paved the way for tv to get it almost perfect over the 52 episodes of Justified screened before he died. Tony Soprano would have loved Justified, incidentally.
One of the joys of it is the casting – a parade of snaggy-toothed hillbilly villainy which comes as a refreshing change if you grew up on the PR-constructed America favoured by Hollywood and Washington. Most of the action takes place in a version of Harlan County, Kentucky, where the industries are coal, growing reefer, dealing in speed, guns and evangelical religion, and enforcing for the Dixie Mafia. It all reminds me of a documentary called Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, by swamp-country musician Jim White, about the off-highway America where the choice of fate in every town is between the church and the strip club. In it, somebody recalled that the Sears Roebuck catalogue appeared to come from a foreign country when you were growing up in a community where your family had all been marked by, for example, a backfiring staple gun – meaning, of course. a fencing tool, not some fairy office accessory.
There is some comfort, however, for the Harlan County Tourist Board. Apart from the appeal of village shops where you can pick up moonshine brandy and a good range of ammo, Marshal Givens is drawn back to his roots, after a spell in Miami, by his ex-girlfriend, country gangsters’ moll Ava, a knockout performance by Joelle Carter, and his ex-wife, fragrant courtroom assistant Winona, slinkily played by Natalie Zea. These two babes are worth dodging some shotgun fire for – even when they are doing the shooting.
When I first saw Timothy Olyphant, who plays the lead, I thought he was just a mite young and pretty, but he undersells his charm and his lines in a style reminiscent of James Garner, who would have fitted the part exactly in his prime. And the rest of the cast give him a run for his money.
By all accounts, Leonard was delighted with them all – and with the music, which is another great pleasure of the show. The title track, by New York combo Gangstagrass, is the best rap’n’twang mash-up since The Gourds covered Snoop Dogg’s Gin’n’Juice and a number of real hardcore country and bluegrass players, from well away from Nashville, have bit parts, live or on record, throughout the series.
Musical References In Elmore Leonard is one of the great undone jobs of literary mining but in the case of Justified, it has at least started. At http://www.tunefind.com/show/justified/ you can look up which records have been playing in the background of any scene. Madison Gate Records put out a first compilation from the main soundtrack on CD in January but, for some reason, it is not yet available through Amazon UK and Amazon USA is not supposed to sell it to you. ITunes appears to have a download available, if you can crack its sign-on system.
Season Five of Justified is due out in 2014. Meanwhile, keep an eye out for more recognition of its success in the Emmy Awards on September 22.
* Chris Benfield blogs at https://hack4hire.wordpress.com/

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2 Responses to Elmore’s Last Great Legacy

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