Breaking Down The Clogging in “Misbehavin”

Like every other smart and cool person in America, I’ve obsessed over the song “Misbehavin” since it aired on Sunday’s episode of The Righteous Gemstones.

But the conversation’s mostly focused on the song. And the song is indeed mind-blowing and hilarious. It feels like a country standard that’s been playing in the background for decades. Lyrics like “look at me outside waving” and “running around the house with a pickle in my mouth” are hilarious and worth deep examinations.

But as brilliant as the song is on its own, clogging, the Appalachian variant on tap dancing, is the heart of the performance. Baby Billy and Aimee-Leigh Freeman aren’t merely a singing duo. As Baby Billy says, they’ve got something Johnny Cash and June Carter: clogging.

I was blown away the dancing the first time I watched the video. The second time, I closely watched the editing to see when they switched from actors to stand-ins. And that was going to be the premise of this article until an HBO publicist told me the actors Walter Goggins and Jennifer Nettles did all the dancing without any reliance on stunt cloggers.

That’s when I realized that the real dance was going on in the editing room.

There’s a good reason that I was so impressed by the clogging. The sequence is a masterpiece of deceptive filmmaking—and I mean that in the very best way possible. Let’s take it frame by frame, like the Zapruder film.

The song starts at 0:27 of the scene and lasts until 2:14. The 47-second sequence contains about 40 different shots (I counted 40 but might’ve missed a cut or two). Out of those 40 or so shots, about seven involve clogging.

The song starts with Goggins in mid clog, which we hear before we see. His shoes tap out a rhythm as the camera lingers on John Goodman glowering on a talk show set—something that becomes important later. Goggins and Nettles are shot from the back as Goggins taps out a quick series of steps.

All screenshots courtesy of HBO

Then the camera cuts to a shot of them from the front as he ends his dance.

The next clogging shot is the start of the song’s main clogging sequence at 1:25. which opens with a wide shot of Nettles and Goggins dancing a simple, steady pattern.

Next is a shot from behind the performers’ backs. It’s a quick shot, with tighter framing and faster movements than before.

A quick reaction shot from a female musician looking impressed by the dancing follows. It’s a masterful editing trick because it signals to the audience that what we’re watching but not quite seeing is impressive, which has the effect of making us believe it’s more impressive than it is.

Then the camera cuts back to a closeup on their clogging feet. It wasn’t until I watched the scene about a half dozen times that I realized nothing particularly special happens in the closeup. They’re really just cutting to a closeup because they’re so confident viewers are convinced that something really spectacular is happening.

A shot of Nettles and Goggins from the front comes next, with Nettles lifting up her skirt to give her legs room for a crossover heel dig move while Goggins throws his arms in the air. It’s an incredibly charming moment punctuated by a cut to John Goodman. Goodman started the song upset but now we see him smiling and enjoying the performance, which reinforces the idea that what we’re seeing is really good.

Then we see Nettles and Goggins from the front but further away than the previous shot. Nettles does a variation of the move from the last shot while Goggins moves at the same time but not exactly with the same movements. It’s not precise choreography at all but the actors’ charisma and presence sells it.

After a brief closeup on their feet, it’s the big finale, where they hop in time, take a few little steps and end by extending their arms to the audience. It’s a very simple physical sequence but the expertly paced editing makes it seem much more than the sum of its parts.