Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DVD Review: John Mellencamp: It’s About You

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

John Mellencamp: It’s About You
Directed, photographed and edited by Kurt Markus and Ian Markus
MPI Home Pictures / Little B Pictures
80 minutes, 2010 / 2012
But first, a digressive tale from the ego: In 1989, I had a co-worker who was a John Cougar Mellencamp fan (perchance a Mellenhead?). He would go on and on (and on) about how he had very record, every bootleg, every video regarding Mellencamp that had ever been released. To shut him up, I brought in two pieces of vinyl: a 12” split picture disc of Cougar and Cindy Bullens on MainMan, and a four-song 7” EP (with picture sleeve) called U.S. Male that was put out by indie Indiana label, Gulcher Records (which more infamous released the recordings of the Gizmos). He had previously heard of neither of them.

I thought they guy was going to have a heart attack. He wanted to buy them off me, and I said no. I’m not a fan, but I did not want to give this guy the satisfaction. I’m sure he probably bought them off eBay at some point, but I only worked with him for about four to six months. It felt good, and was worth it (and yes, I still have them). Now he can buy this.

And now, back to our feature presentation

At the time of the filming, Kurt Markus was a purist photographer in his 60s living out in Wyoming. His son Ian was in his 20s, and on a challenge by John Mellencamp (JM) himself, they were invited along on a tour with John, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan to film it, and also some recording sessions for an upcoming LP, No Better Than This, released in 2010. Note that there is zero footage of either Willie or Bob.

Shot in a somewhat grainy Super 8 and mixed with stills, Kurt narrates in florid and poetic language about how the two of them, in tow, used this filming as a time of self-“discovery.” This was all set up by JM challenging Kurt to put down the still camera and pick up the film one, and get creative. Mostly, we learn is that this film – while JM is the centerpiece – it is also, in John’s words to Kurt, “it’s about you.”

One of the early shots of the tour is of JM (okay, mostly the audience) on stage singing “Pink Houses,” and “Paper in Fire,” followed by Kurt philosophizing over footage of small towns and big. I see now why Kurt and JM are friends: they wax poetic, but tend to see the glass half empty and try to understand it. For JM, his lyrics are about failure (“…ain’t that America?!”), while Kurt looks at St. Louis and wonders how desolate it may be in 50 years.

We follow JM and crew into the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, with an explanation of how it was used as part of the Underground Railroad. It is also where JM records “Clumsy Ol’ World,” which we see in part. After, JM and his wife (Elaine Irwin; divorced 2011) get baptized by being dunked in a mikva dug into the church floor. Now this may sound cynical (and it probably is), but as I don’t really know JM well, though I know he is for marriage equity and an Obama supporter, so I wonder if they were baptized there for themselves, or the camera.

Kurt has found the sweet spot between highlighting JM and keeping his own personal touch. If there is any complaint about that, it’s that sometimes his philosophizing is over the music; even if I’m not a fan, I still want to understand the music and what about it makes JM = JM, but more often than not we listen to Kurt talk about missing a photo opportunity of Bob Dylan due to the Zimmer-man’s insistence on privacy and not being looked at by crew, or not getting film of someone in Memphis saying that Johnny Cash believed that JM was one of the top10 songwriters in America. A redeeming feature, though, is what Kurt is waxing on about reflects the music playing, in that observant, depressive way (i.e., the destruction of downtowns for the suburbs). Kurt says it best when he posits that “Perhaps John and I are making this journey together. He has brought me in as a parallel traveler.” That is what I would call astute and accurate.

Some of the best musical moments are the sessions in Memphis and San Antonio. It’s among the more static shots, but still interesting as JM and musicians sit around a single microphone, with T. Bone Burnett in charge. The following live performance shots from those cities have some electric sounds and visuals. JM’s Americana Blues Rock sounds better than I remember, even when he’s talking about death. What’s more, his commitment comes through.

Considering the gear used, it is naturally grainy and shaky, like all those home movies of long gone, but the subject matter is the focal point. That being said, Kurt’s experience as a photographer help him in a number of ways, such as how the film is processed, with many different monochromes (red, blue, brown, etc.), as well as standardized colors. As the film explains in the credits, for you technocrats out there, “This film was shot entirely with Beaulieu Super8 cameras, modified by technicians at Pro8mm, using Kodak’s Vision 3 500T color negative stock. Digital Mastering and colorizing…on a Millennium II HD Scanner.”

And at the end, what do we learn about JM and Kurt? Not much, but it’s a fun ride. We conclude that they are very different people, and yet share similar values. JM expresses himself in narrative lyrics and music about life being hard, and Kurt waxes poetic about what he sees in life, the American Southern landscape both rural and urban, and he ponders. In other words, JM looks out, and Kurt looks within, and they find a similar internal soundtrack.

Over the end credits is the video to one of the JM’s biggest hits, “R.O.C.K. in theUSA.” Definitely one of his better, to me, but watching this I realize I tend to go more for the indie than the major hit, preferring the Fleshtones’ “American Beat ’84,” which covers similar material. The point of my saying this is that Mellencamp is an I.N.S.T.I.T.U.T.I.O.N. in the USA, and as much as he feels browbeat at times here, and as much as he can be both a loveable teddy bear and an asshole curmudgeon, he definitely has the chops. And perhaps his tour being stripped down to barebones musicians and minimal crew (e.g., no soundguy), he’s gonna do okay. Even now, in 2015, he’s on a big tour. But what he’s feeding on, for example, is the breakdown of the American cities (remember, this is filmed right after the Bush Administration raped the country’s economy to foster a war to profit his Vice President, with its strongest downturn being in 2008), Even if Kurt and Ian’s cameras stop rolling, there will always be an audience for JM, and rightfully so. But I choose more towards the independents, the hungry, the huddles masses waiting for a guitar-led garage band.

The only extras are the trailers and a much appreciated subtitles. That being said, make sure you stick around for the Epilogue after the credits.


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