Linda Chorney about fell out of her chair.
“Hey folks, don’t take your beers outside because you could be arrested,” the host at La Cocina, a downtown restaurant and cantina, said during the Tucson Folk Festival that early May day three years ago.
“Wait a minute,” Chorney said, speaking in the middle of the small crowd. “You mean you can carry a gun in Arizona but you can’t carry a beer?”
Before anyone could answer, the singer-songwriter grabbed a bar napkin and rushed to a quiet spot in the courtyard, where she penned “The Cantina,” a novelty song that chides the state for considering an open beer to be more dangerous than a gun.
The next day, Chorney, 56, who had moved to Tucson from New Jersey months earlier, premiered the song on the 2013 Folk Festival’s main stage. “I sang it off the napkin, me and my guitar,” she recalled.
She didn’t know what to expect: Would the audience hate it and her, or love it?
“Let me get this straight,” she sang, then lit into the hyper-paced chorus: “You can carry a gun / But you can’t carry a beer / You can set it on the ground and use it as a target / But you can’t drink it there.”
“They gave me a standing ovation,” she said.
She didn’t realize it then, but that ditty was about to take on a life of its own.
After years of being a winter visitor in Oro Valley, she and her husband Scott Fadynich decided to go all in and make Tucson their full-time home in late 2012.
The Folk Festival was her first big show in Tucson, but she was not entirely unknown here. She had made national and local headlines in early 2012 when she was improbably nominated for a Grammy Award as an unsigned, independent artist — a first for the Grammys.
In the audience that day was longtime Tucson bass player Philip Anderson, a retired University of Arizona researcher. He had met Chorney the day before at La Cocina when she came up to him and proclaimed, “Hey, you sound like a ’60s bass player.”
“It was like this long, sweeping wind that came in,” he said. “Linda’s a shaker, as you’ve probably noticed.”
After the Folk Festival performance, Chorney put “The Cantina” on the shelf until early 2014, when she was invited to perform at the Women’s Expo at the Tucson Convention Center. Tucson videographer Harry Findysz, who owns Southern Arizona Video Productions, was working for the conference when he stopped to listen to Chorney sing.
He was struck by the song’s irony and its humor.
Findysz, a retired Rural Metro firefighter, started imagining how the song would play out in a music video. His 11-year-old studio does everything from weddings to TV shows, live event streaming and music videos. He proposed the video to Chorney and said he would do it for $1,200 — a fraction of what he normally charges.
“I can’t spend $1,200 on a music video; I usually spend a hundred bucks and I do them myself,” she told him.
The reality is that music videos have no true payoff. People stream the videos on social media or YouTube and rarely if ever buy anything from the artist.
“It’s not that I mind spending money, but I’m not going to get a return,” she explained.
Findysz wasn’t swayed; he would do it for free.
Naturally, she accepted. But first, she had to record the song.
Chorney heard mariachis.
“The Cantina” was a song about Tucson as much as it was about the state’s quirky laws. Mariachis were a must.
Access Tucson’s Maria Powell recommended Mariachi Sol Azteca, a Tucson ensemble founded by Angel Guzman in 2001.
Chorney asked Anderson to lay down the bass line and recruited a handful of Tucson musicians, including guitarist Michael P. Nordberg, for the recording, released on her Global Loving Records label. She brought in her sound engineer Brian Phillips from Los Angeles. He lugged his equipment from Los Angeles and took up residence in her spare bedroom for the four-day project.
With all the pieces in place, she decided to turn the whole project — the recording and the video — into a documentary. It would not be about her as much as the often thankless process independent artists go through to create art.
“I decided that day that I was going to document this from beginning to end,” she said.
She pulled out her hand-held Sony HD camera and began filming from the moment the mariachis — Angel Duran, Chris Burr, Ramon Munoz, Manny Celaya and Jesse James Rojas — arrived at her foothills home for the first rehearsal, through the recording session and throughout the video shoot that began the day after she finished the recording.
Then she went around to people she knew, inviting her Skyline Country Club neighbors Pam Bass and UA professor Netzin Steklis, to be dancing girls. Others included Denise Schafer and her daughter, Meleena Velez, who run their family’s longtime Tucson Mexican restaurant La Indita.
After scouting locations, she and Findysz found Harkers Old West Museum on the south side. The scaled-down 1880s Old West town, which Rick Harker started building in 1992, was used mostly for private functions including weddings, photo shoots and private parties.
On the day they visited, Chorney met some cowboys hanging around.
“Hey, do you guys want to be in my video?” she asked cowboy Mike Williams and stuntman James Lovin. Both agreed and brought a few more cowboys along.
“I was overwhelmed that these people — it was just one day, but it was one hard-working day — that they said they would be in the film and the music video,” Chorney said.
She and Findysz mapped out 93 scenes, all to be shot in one day to maintain Chorney’s vision: create a slapstick, almost Mel Brooks-esque feel, for the music video. Normally Findysz spends a week shooting a music video.
“It was crazy that day. It was jumping from scene to scene to scene. While they were shooting one, I was setting the next one up,” he said, recalling how it was so hot that day that they had to rush the cameras under a shade tree every once in awhile to prevent them from overheating.
“It was fast. She was crazy. She couldn’t believe how fast we were going,” Findysz said. “She’s very good. We didn’t have to do hardly any retakes.”
“There was a part where it was just us dancing with ourselves,” said Schafer, who with her daughter played Mexican dancers. “They told us to have fun. And we’re troopers. We go with the flow. It was more of the experience. It was fun. It was high energy all the time.”
Throughout the music video shoot, Chorney also was shooting her documentary.
“I was directing, acting and singing and filming,” she said. “I almost collapsed in the end, but I did it. We all did it.”
The documentary peers into the frustrating world of being an indie artist, from simple things like weighing yourself to make sure you lose the five pounds that will look like 10 or 15 when you’re on stage to loading up a Prius to hit the road for a series of concerts. Scenes include reflections on the financial state of the music industry where artists get little if any payoff from their art, thanks to the Internet and streaming websites like Spotify and Pandora.
In one scene, Chorney scrolls through her PayPal account on her phone to see if anyone downloaded “The Cantina” after the video was posted on YouTube.
The documentary is entirely unscripted and unpolished. It has the feel of real time, as if you were looking through the big picture window in Chorney’s living room office and watching her life unfold before you.
“It captured the heart and soul of what a musician goes through,” said Cindy Paulos, a veteran indie artist and radio trailblazer; she was the first female DJ on air at the famous Los Angeles station KROQ.
“Most times when you see documentaries they are all set up. This is true reality and I really think every single musician needs to see this documentary,” said Paulos, who has released four CDs and published three books. She lives in Hawaii where she hosts the longest-running radio talk show on Maui and runs the KAOI Radio group, which she founded in 1989.
Chorney had intended the documentary to end not long after the music video shoot. But during that time, her mother became ill, so she included private moments with her family, including a scene of her mother being serenaded by mariachis in hospice.
One of the final scenes is of Chorney opening for the Beach Boys at the newly renovated Tucson Arena early last year. She carries her camera on stage and informs the nearly full arena that she wants to film them for her documentary. She sang “The Cantina,” and the audience howled.
Then came the hard part: editing hours and hours of footage into a single hour. She did it on her home computer using Final Cut Pro, video-editing software that she taught herself to use as she went along.
“It’s not that I’m a control freak, it’s that I didn’t have to pay myself,” she said. “I learned how to do everything, and when all was done with this journey, I knew it was done.”
It took her 7,000 hours over 18 months. While editing the film, she recorded her latest album, “Oysters,” which she just released. “The Cantina” is among a trio of bonus songs, including “Martin,” the song she wrote commemorating the life of the youngest victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Chorney finished the film last summer and sent a copy to her filmmaker cousin, Robin Russin, in Los Angeles. He was a tough critic who had helped edit Chorney’s 2013 post-Grammy book “Who the (expletive) is Linda Chorney?” If anyone would give her an honest assessment it was Russin.
“Twenty-four hours later my phone rings. I see it’s him and I’m very hesitant to pick up the phone, figuring he’s going to say to me, ‘Linda, stick to music,’” she recalled.
Instead, he told her he thought the movie was brilliant, except for the title: She called it “Why Bother,” which Russin said was negative. He felt the film was actually uplifting and positive. He suggested “The Opening Act.”
Chorney submitted “The Opening Act” to a number of big film festivals, which charge an entry fee even if the film is rejected. One that accepted it was the Asbury Park Music In Film Festival, which awarded her best music documentary.
“I was floored,” she said, noting that other films in the festival included Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” biopic of Miles Davis and Colin Hay’s documentary “Waiting for My Real Life.”
Independent Film Arizona also awarded “The Opening Act” best documentary in 2015.
“When someone can be so open to make you laugh and cry and root for in just 63 minutes, you know it is something very special,” said Joe Amiel, founder of film production and distribution firm Manhattan Pictures International, who has seen the film. “When it is also entertaining, it is brilliant. Linda Chorney proved something to her fans and herself, that her fame is in front of her.”
Chorney said “‘The Opening Act’ is for two kinds of people: Those who make their livings from the arts and those who don’t.
“For those who do make their living from the arts, the film is therapy for them because they can say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is exactly what I go through,’” she said. “They see themselves in it. And for the people who are not in the arts, they understand why we need therapy after they see the show. Because it shows how much time, effort, money, hustling, pulling favors, groveling and the occasional supporter of the arts donation in order for them to make their art. … You go through all that effort and then what happens? The payoff. Does it pay to play?”
Chorney will host a Tucson screening of the film as a fundraiser in part for the Tucson Boys & Girls Clubs in late May. She also plans to submit it to more film festivals in the hopes of landing a distributor.