Lost Vegas Hiway ★★★½

"There's a story to tell; one night at the Gateway Motel." ~ Jeff Mix and the Songhearts ~

For the past three years, Las Vegas musician Jeff Mix has labored at producing an album of his original songs and a feature film based on the stories those songs described. Tonight at the privately operated Inspire Theater in downtown Las Vegas, the film had its premiere before a sold-out house full of appreciative cast, crew, friends, family and indie film lovers like me. To say it was well received would be a huge understatement. The audience loved every delicious minute of it.

The story is a tightly interlinked and well edited string of vignettes based on the lives of the residents of the ramshackle Gateway Motel. For example, there's the mean-spirited motel manager named Kelso (Blake K. Phillips), who we gradually learn is a depressed, suicidal junkie lamenting the loss of an unnamed woman.

Among the regular guests is a distressed mother and her young daughter hiding from an abusive husband as well as a conman who sells items he's stolen from the post office. We also see a homeless vagrant who scavenges from the motel's dumpster, a newlywed couple very much in love and lust, and a transvestite who is finding Sin City a lot less friendly than imagined.

One of the long-term residents is a prostitute named Beth (Tiffany Rose Thomas), who used to let Kelso bang her in return for a room. Fortunately, she's flush enough now that she can tell him to go to hell when he hits on her. We do, however, see her in action with sundry characters and obviously disgusted by what she does for a living.

So ... what about Jeff Mix? In addition to producing the film, writing the script, composing the music and handling the editing, he plays the starring role, leaving the direction and camerawork to first-time feature filmmaker Zohaib Latif, a cinematographer from Brooklyn. Jeff's character (himself) is the thread that connects and holds the others together. He rolls into Vegas from Austin, Texas, missing his wife Debbie, whom he hasn't seen in several years, although he calls occasionally and leaves messages on her phone. Las Vegas has special meaning for Jeff, because it's where he and Debbie got hitched.

Staying at the Gateway, Jeff interacts with the other guests and finds inspiration in their sad, off-the-grid existence. He begins writing songs about their lives, and these tunes, ten of them, become the soundtrack for the film. But before you start to think this is just an extended music video, be aware that there's also an interesting plot, as a gunshot rings out in the introductory scenes, and the rest is a flashback leading up to the solution to a mystery ... who got shot and why. Let's say I was pleasantly surprised by the twist Jeff saved for us.

I asked some of the folks who know Jeff if he plans to put this on the festival circuit, and they said they thought he did. Right this minute, the only other scheduled showing is a matinee tomorrow (3/12/17) at the same venue. If you have any idea where a brief (60-minute) feature like this might get good exposure, let me know and I can pass the word along through folks I met at the screening. Definitely worth watching, especially if you love the seedy side of Las Vegas like I do.