Nick (left) and JB
This is Nick and JB. They have autism. They also have a fairly amazing music show.
Each week the two men host Hot Tracks on WCET-TV, a local access channel in their hometown of Hudsonville, Michigan, that has been running for 12 seasons. The friends and co-hosts riff on popular music and one another, rating songs on a five-star scale before ending the show with a very pure, very real, very hard dance.
Andrew Bedinger and James Grochowalski grew up in Grand Rapids, a 25-minute drive away from Hudsonville. When James got a part-time job at WCET-TV after high school he saw Nick and JB's show and decided he was watching something special. Initially, he and Andrew simply picked their favorite clips and uploaded them to YouTube, where Nick and JB developed a small but dedicated cult following.
Their first clip, “Hot Tracks! (Safe & Joyous Halloween),” was uploaded in 2009. Since then, Andrew and James have spent five years filming JB, 38, and Nick, 29, in spare moments between paid film projects and other work. They released Musical Minds, their documentary about the pair, online last March. I caught up with Andrew via Skype to talk about making the film and the future of Hot Tracks.
VICE: Hot Tracks has been going strong for 13 years now. What do you think is its enduring appeal? What about it appealed to you and James?
Andrew Bedinger: Other than the fact that people just laugh like crazy when they watch it, Nick and JB are an incredibly interesting pairing. They’re like an old married couple when they do the show, playing off each other. It’s something that could be kind of complicated and difficult, but the atmosphere of the show is so fun and light. When we came across “Dragon Force” we knew we had to make a documentary.
Did you realize it was going to take five years to make when you started it, or was it something you looked into and then thought, We need more time with this?
We weren’t quite sure how we wanted to approach it, what we wanted to focus on. We were fascinated by the guys but didn’t know how to frame their story. Once we got started, our biggest barrier was not really knowing how to end it, because both Nick and JB have a very simple, succinct routine that they do, and they’ve been living that way for years and years. Nothing has changed for these guys in the past ten years. So once we captured their routine we were like, "What do we do with this? What’s the story?" It took us a long time to figure out a story that was good enough for them.
Were Nick and JB into the idea of the documentary right away?
Oh, yes. They were absolutely crazy about it. JB especially. I mean, he thinks he’s just fully famous, that everyone knows who he is. When we pitched him the documentary he was like, “Of course, yeah, this is gonna be great.” Nick was that way, but then he kind of got in a mode of like, “I’ve been too into myself and how famous I am,” so he pulled away for a bit, but then got back on board.
Watching it, it felt like the documentary that you guys were making and the documentary that JB and Nick thought you were making was kind of a different thing. They seem to think it’s a story about two celebrities, that the public is clamoring for more info on Nick and JB. What was it like working with that disjuncture?
Yeah, at first they both sort of presumed it was like a Cribs-style thing. JB literally mentioned Cribs when he was showing us his place. I think that was their mindset at first, and we took a while to say specifically to them, “You know, this isn’t really like that; it’s a documentary about your lives and what it’s like for people with autism.” Once we talked a bit about making it educational for people to see sort of a day-in-the-life of a person with autism, they were really into that angle and kind of dropped the Cribs thing. So it was a little strange at first, but I think they had a great sense of humor about it, and it adds some humor to certain parts of the documentary, I think.
The humor element is a really interesting—and fairly fraught, for me at least—part of the viewing experience of Hot Tracks and the documentary itself. Watching both, there’s this question of when, how much, and how hard to laugh. How do you feel about the level of humor and levity in the show?
That was another hard thing for us. When you just watch the clips without any idea of their backstory, they seem sort of funny and crazy, and when you get to know them more, you know they do want you to laugh, but they don’t always know why they’re making you laugh. It’s a very fine line on the show, and it’s a very fine line in the doc too, because we obviously never wanted it to come across as though we’re making fun of the guys or people with autism as a group. We wanted it to be fun, because they’re fun. We wanted to keep the tone in line with who they are as people. We interviewed people like Faith, who works at the station, who talked about asking herself, you know, "When should I laugh?" and Nick and JB saying, "We want you to laugh—we’re trying to be funny. It’s OK."
That was a very freeing part of the documentary to me. It was kind of a relief.
Yeah, it’s crucial. We struggled a bit with where to put that in the film. We wanted to start it off with the viewer a bit confused as to what they were seeing, so we ended up putting it in fairly far along into the film to disorient the viewer and let them come to some of their own conclusions before revealing more and making them question those conclusions, maybe. It would have been a disaster if people saw the film and thought we were making fun of anyone. What we wanted to bring across is how their lives are every day. We wanted to capture a slice of their life without messing anything up. They’re funny guys, and they enjoy when people are laughing, so we tried to keep it light.
Are you still in touch with the guys?
Absolutely. I get a call almost daily from them, just to say… something. They’re great guys. We hang out every few weeks or so.
Have they seen the film? Do they like it?
They have. They really loved it, which we were nervous about because it goes into a lot of personal detail, especially with Nick, who, you know, struggles with his relationship to women and all that stuff. So we weren’t sure how that would go over, but he thought it was good and honest. He liked the fact that it will be a good tool to help people understand autism.
Did you have any personal connection to autism before you made the documentary?
Neither James nor I really had any major connection, and starting into the process I didn’t know a whole lot about it. This has opened up a lot of doors for us in terms of educating ourselves during production of the film. My relationship with Nick and JB now—we’re extremely close. There wasn’t much of a connection before, but being part of their lives, talking with their families, doing a bunch of research, it was a great learning experience for us, and we’re very invested in the educational side of it too. I really hope people see the documentary and decide to educate themselves more about autism.
How does it feel to finish something you’ve been working on for more than five years?
It’s a relief. It was a long project and it’s been something that we’ve been working on as a passion project on the side throughout the years, so it feels good that it’s finished, but it’s also a bit sad. It’s been part of my life for so long, but it’s time to move on to something different. I don’t necessarily think the documentary is done, either—it’s online, but it doesn’t feel final. We want to do film festivals and things, to see where it can go. So far the reaction has been very positive, and we’re always open to the idea that if something were to come down the pipeline with Nick and JB that we could pick up the cameras and get back at it.
The film's been out for a few months now—how has it been received?
It’s funny—now that the film is getting some interest, having conversations with people in film or people who are interested in it, hearing them quoting Hot Tracks or the documentary to us feels crazy. It’s been part of this tiny, inner world for so long, and now it’s out there. And people seem to like it.
Watch the full documentary here.