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Thumbs Up for Mother Universe: Stories from the Life of Lonnie Holley

This feature-length documentary traces the dramatic life of Lonnie Holley from the garbage dumps and prison camps of Jim Crow Alabama to the music stages and art museums of the world. Along the way, the film reveals the spirituality of Holley’s creative process; his insights into conservation, ecology and the environment; and his deep sources of inspiration rooted in southern life and African American history and culture.

Lonnie B. Holley has been described as an outsider, a poet, a con man, a prophet, a hustler, a visionary artist, a junkman and a shaman. Foremost, the 69-year-old African American artist and musician from Birmingham, Alabama is an American original. Born the seventh of 27 children, Holley’s childhood is the stuff of novels. At 18-months-old he is given to another woman who in turn sells him into servitude for a pint of whiskey. He is raised in a juke joint as ‘Tunky’ McElroy, unaware of his true identity. By age five he is forced to work full time and savagely beaten for any shirking of his duties. At age 8 he discovers his true identity and sets out to find his family. The meandering quest takes him to New Orleans (when he ‘hobos’ a ride on the wrong train). Then, into a three month coma after being hit and dragged by a car, and incarceration in the infamous Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children—where he is beaten close to death. Finally, at age 14, he is reunited with his true family.

As an adult at age 28, Holley is adrift battling depression and alcoholism. With no training or guidance, he starts carving ‘core sand’—an industrial by-product of Birmingham’s blast furnaces, and discovers that making things calms the persistent nightmares from his childhood. The stark power of his work attracts the attention of a local TV crew and soon his sculptures are in the Smithsonian. Today his paintings, assemblages of found objects and carvings are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and museums and collections worldwide. Yet Holley still lives on the margins. Eschewing worldly goods–he lives to make art.

In 2012 Holley, who has always sung for his own entertainment, is pulled into a studio. The resulting recording leads to a European tour. In December 2013, The Chicago Sun Times names Holley’s second album #2, behind Kanye West, and Washington Post music critic Chris Richards describes Holley’s sound as “a free jazz fever dream, a babbling Baptist sermon from deep space, a lullaby for the end of the world, and a songbook that’s frequently beautiful and occasionally frightening.” Holley’s 2018 album Mith takes it a step further: The Wire, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Spin, Paste, The New Yorker, All Music, Newsweek, and the Guardian praise the album.

The filmmakers have documented Holley’s journey over a 26 year period from 1993 to 2019, including reunions, funerals, and weddings as well as art and music making, A short made by Holley and others premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.




95 mins

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Directed by: George King

Producers: George King, Charmaine Minniefield, Amy Linton

Editors: Lewis Erskine, Amy Linton

Story Editor: Sam Pollard

About the Filmmaker

George King originally trained as a documentary filmmaker in the U.K. Since relocating to the U.S., he has divided his work between teaching, writing, photography and independent film, television, and radio production.

Filmmaker Statement

Producer/Director George King and colleagues have been filming Lonnie Holley, his life, his work, and his family since 1996. During this time we have amassed an intimate archive of an artist’s life.

Filming a subject over a 25 year period (we have added earlier footage, never screened from another filmmaker) I cannot claim objectivity. In many ways this project is more like a collaboration between two artists than a filmmaker and a subject. That said, as in any documentary project, we have struggled to present the truth as we see it. The film has been edited by Lewis Erskine ACE, Amy Linton ACE, p.g.a., and story consultant Sam Pollard.