Indie filmmaker Laura Scott was barely a teenager the night Jim Croce played his final concert in Natchitoches, Louisiana, but the memory has haunted her for more than four decades.
Scott recently joined forces with Dallas filmmaker Israel Varela to direct The Johnny Starr Story, which she describes as a fictional film based on a few facts from her hometown.
The movie is about “a rock star who comes to a small town and meets his demise,” she says. The Johnny Starr character is a stand-in for Croce.
After Croce’s Sept. 20, 1973, concert at Northwestern State University, the private plane that he and five others were on took off abruptly before crashing into a pecan tree that Scott says belonged to her brother-in-law.
“I mean, I had his record,” she said. “He died. I‘d never been exposed to death like that. … The whole town, everybody, was in shock.”
Although Scott had been babysitting the night of Croce’s concert, she remembers the small-town talk that followed. (Conspiracy theories about Croce's death can be found on the internet.) A few years later, her friend’s cousin, Ken Berry, who worked for the district attorney’s office and had been investigating the events surrounding the plane crash, was shot in the head, and his house burned down. Berry’s murder remains a mystery, and The Johnny Starr Story is dedicated to him.
“He was a very nice guy,” Scott says, recalling how she went to a few parties at Berry’s house with friends. “He lived on the river. Back then, in the '70s, it was a little different. We were freer, you know. It was fun.”
Varela wrote a script that wraps pure fiction around a few of the facts and rumors surrounding the urban legend. And Scott says he nailed it.
“My goal is to tell a compelling story to get people thinking,” Varela says. “If anything, I hope this will spur conversation around [Berry’s cold case] and hopefully come closer to finding out who killed him.”
Varela said one of his favorite scenes in the short drama is the concert, which he says had to be shot close up and tight because many of the college-aged extras didn’t show up for filming at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.
The band learned and played Bad Company’s "Shooting Star" for the film, and Scott says locals greeted cast and crew members who had driven in from places like Dallas and Atlanta with Southern hospitality. “The people of the town opened up their homes to let the actors who were from out of state come in and stay with them,” she says.
Varela says he tried to handle the filming with caution and sensitivity. “When you’re from a small town, you don’t really want outsiders coming in a digging up your dirty laundry,” he says.
Another part that Varela favors is a midnight scene of an “old, creepy warehouse in the middle of nowhere,” where an aging sheriff tells Jason Hawkins, a reporter played by Varela, to “leave it alone.”
Varela says that when Hawkins returned to the town to find out the truth about the murder of his grandfather, there was a new sheriff. But more than likely, the old sheriff “was still pulling some strings," Varela says.
Ted Ferguson, who plays the old sheriff in the film, sent in an audition tape that nearly mirrored the scene.
Actress GayNell Doshier plays a starstruck fan in the movie. She says she auditioned for the role in Dallas and traveled to Louisiana for filming.
“Nancy, she’s a little bit maybe delusional, devoted, enamored,” she says. “She truly doesn’t understand why [Johnny] left and why he hasn’t come back to her.”
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Varela, a former rapper, started acting about four years ago and soon began making short films. He says he’d like to turn the story into a bigger-budget production. But for now, he’s just trying to gauge interest and reaction to the film.
The Johnny Starr Story will screen in Louisiana for the first time Oct. 7 at the Lake Charles Film Festival. From there, it will head to the Reel East Texas Festival in Kilgore and the EyeCatcher International Film Festival in Oklahoma in November.
While there may be some truth to the legend, Varela says he doesn’t believe there was any malice involved in the real life plane crash. However, he hopes that by documenting the case, The Johnny Starr Story will give some closure to victims and their families.
Scott, on the other hand, believes that political ambitions may have fueled local rumors. “What would happen if you bust a rock star in a small town?” she asks.