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‘Billy the Kid’ on PBS’ ‘American Experience’, 10 January

“I think he thinks, ‘Somewhere, I’m gonna get out of this.'” “He” is Billy the Kid, the legendary American criminal who is the subject of American Experience: Billy the Kid. Opening on a close-up of a noose hanging over a dusty (re-enacted) street, the show speculates repeatedly as to what the man born in New York City as William Henry McCarty might have been “thinking” at any given moment. He was “extremely intelligent,” says one expert. “Escaping was always on the agenda,” says another. Billy the Kid “came of age,” says narrator Michael Murphy, “at the moment the Wild West was forged, at a time when outlaws were made famous overnight in the pages of dime novels.” Because so little evidence remains (the only known tintype of Billy the Kid appear again and again here) and because much history is built on these fictions, it’s difficult now to piece together what did happen when. As Bill Richardson puts it, “He was made into a mythical character.” The show doesn’t question the myth so much as it presents it step by step, via historians and aficionados” testimonies, and , American Experience‘s familiar, richly mounted reenactments to fill in the gaps. Tight shots of boots and clinking spurs, shovels digging into dirt and rifles cocking, long shots of riders astride galloping horses and men shot dead, hitting the ground in slow motion. The imagined details can be evocative and even romantic (Billy is “blending into the darkness of the New Mexico night” or “framed by the moonlight”), as can the imagined motivations: he remained devoted to his girlfriend Paulita Maxwell, to the point of endangering his life. The natural and social environments were equally harsh, indicated by wind on the soundtrack and gavels banging. “The kid is a consistent rebel,” all the way,” say historian Paul Hutton. And such, he’s been absorbed into a national self-image.

Watch Billy the Kid preview on PBS. See more from American Experience.

RATING 6 / 10
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