When I was in high school owned a Jimmy Buffett shirt. I wasn’t any big fan of the guy, to be honest, but I was more than happy to unironically rep that goofy line from “Margaritaville” about blowin out your flip flop cuz you stepped on a pop top. The image on the shirt was what did it I think. A woman is standing under a lone palm tree at the end of a strip of beach, apparently waiting on you to join her, while a gentle tugs at her floral printed dress. Over the top of it are those stupid lyrics and a single sandal now busted from beer related detritus. It’s silly, but it’s comforting in a way that captures the easy-going stress-free essence that Jimmy Buffett has managed to build an entire career around.
While I would never be confused with any of the Buffett fans that are presented the documentary Parrot Heads, they and I can find common ground in that pull towards escapism, a word that is used by pretty much everyone who makes an appearance in the film to describe what it is that has drawn them to Buffett. Everyday life is complicated. Between work, relationships, politics, finances, and every other little bump in the road, it can all be a bit too much sometimes. Who wouldn’t want to “get away from it all” for a little bit? That’s where Buffett comes in, with his music whisking you off to a tropical beach where your biggest problem is that your footwear is messed up.
Directed by Bryce Wagoner, Parrot Heads sensibly keeps the focus on the fans themselves. For real though, if you came into this movie looking for a history of Jimmy Buffett then you’re going to be let down. At best I think he spends three minutes running through the singer-songwriter’s roots, and more or less the only bits Wagoner pulls from the handful of interviews he did with Buffett are ones where Buffett is talking about his fans: “I just don’t understand it but I appreciate it SO much!” We learn more about the cover band A1A, and it’s co-founder Scott Nickerson, than we do about the guy whose music they have been so moved to play.
I’m not prone to too many “hot takes”, but follow me down a weird path here. I think that Buffet has more in common with less musical things like romance novels and science fiction than bands with similarly devoted followings ala Phish or The Grateful Dead. Yeah, Buffett plays a few dozen concerts every year that end up packed with faithfully devoted fans, some of whom follow him from show to show, but in addition to those, there are also these equally packed peripheral convention-style events where Buffett rarely, if ever, appears in person. Key West’s Meeting of the Minds and New Orleans’ Pardi Gras are obvious destinations for shindigs like that, but even a far flung place like Caseville, Michigan, near the tip of that state’s mitteny thumb, attracts tourist with an annual Buffett-themed Cheeseburger Festival.
There’s an abundance of carousing and canoodling at these things, but, based on the scenes in the film, it’s the camaraderie that everyone seems to get off on the most. These events might have fewer panel discussions than you’d get at Comic-Con, but it’s the the unique brand of connection that separates these fanatics from your run of the mill hippie lookin for a miracle. Furthermore, like the world of sci-fi and romance fandom, Parrot Heads have their own variation on fan-fiction called “trop-rock” which, the film triumphantly informs us, is now recognized by iTunes. Buffett may be the guy who got all these people together, the Rosetta Stone for Parrot Heads, but looking at his fan base even the slightest bit removed and you see that they’re almost as fascinated by each other as they are of him. They have a whole network of “house shows” set up apparently, not unlike some hardcore shows I’ve been to. Instead of mattresses pressed up against windows, though, it’s folding chairs and light hor d'oeuvres for these guys, but the same amount of affection is heaped on the artists by the hosts.
It’s true that you could easily write off Parrot Heads as just another example of privileged white people out there-- and there’s a lot of that kind of melanin deficient obliviousness for sure--but to a person, the stories of individual Buffett fans collected here are way more nuanced that you may expect. For every guy who sold his stock brokerage to bounce hop from island to island with only Buffett songs as his guide, there are a handful of other fans whose lives are much harder to pigeonhole. It serves as a reminder that just about everyone is in need of escapism from something, and you could do worse than a Cheeseburger in Paradise.