Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It’s About You (or is it about John Mellencamp? Or is it about Kurt Markus?)

John Mellencamp in a scene from It's About You

On John Mellencamp’s most recent tour, the “opening act” was an edited-down version of the film It's About You. I didn’t see the tour when it played near here because ticket prices were pricey. This is an ongoing problem: Premium prices put some artists beyond the reach of their fans. I had only recently joined the throngs of Americans (and Canadians) who list John Mellencamp as one of the favourites. Johnny Cash, for instance, called him “one of the 10-best songwriters working today” (or, at least that’s the story filmmaker Kurt Markus tells, quoting bassist Dave Roe who heard it from the Man in Black himself). I wish that Markus had got Roe to tell that story on film!

It’s About You was released on Blu-Ray and DVD last week, and it makes a tidy little package. Only 80 minutes long and shot on super8 by photographer Kurt Markus and his son Ian, and then processed to look aged, it is a thing of beauty for those viewers who like raw and intimate studies. It’s like looking into a personal photo album, but with live action and music added. There are moments when there is no light in the room, as producer T-Bone Burnett closes the drapes in the Sun Studio. But Markus keeps the camera rolling anyway to capture pixels moving amongst darkness but no subject to be clearly seen. As frustrating as that might be to the viewer in one way, it is a moment of clarity in another. Mellencamp’s guitar and voice become central, and the moving pixels simply accompany the song. Then the curtains open and there he is.

John Mellencamp on stage in 2011 (Photo: Mike Coppola)
In the past, I was not particularly fond of Mellencamp’s music or persona. Back when he was Johnny Cougar, (first he dropped the diminutive “ny,” then he denied that era completely and added his real surname John Cougar Mellencamp, and finally he made the divorce complete and became John Mellencamp) he seemed just another pop poseur. But you had to admire his gumption at walking away from the sure success of the Cougar era and risking it all. He says, in the film, “growin’ old ain’t for sissies,” and he knows whereof he speaks. He’s had heart problems and cancer scares and still goes on. He has acted, and painted and written some of the most memorable songs of the last two decades. This film captures what he does best: make music.

The two Markuses followed Mellencamp on a cross-country tour playing football fields and arenas with his band, plus gaining access into intimate recording sessions with a group put together by T-Bone in three very special rooms. The first recording session took place in the basement of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. In this basement, slaves on the run on the Underground Railway hid – there are still diamond-shaped air holes in the floor; and across the street from the church is a Whipping Tree, silent reminders of the history of the church, the city, and the state. Mellencamp and his wife were baptized here during the recording. The immersions are captured movingly on film.

The second sessions took place in Memphis at Sun Studios where an X on the floor marks the spot where Elvis Presley stood to record his first songs. It’s here, where so many classic records were made over the years that Dave Roe shared his secret information about Johnny Cash. Here we see guitarist Marc Ribot display his incredible gift for imaginative soloing. Burnett’s musicians sit surrounded by photographs, and ghosts of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and others. It’s magical.

The last stop is room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas where another producer (Don Law) captured the legendary Robert Johnson’s first recordings. It is said that Johnson faced the corner of the room as he played, and Mellencamp’s small band does the same thing. In each of these rooms the band played live, around one microphone, capturing the results on analogue tape, the way it used to be done. It sounds extraordinary, as does the CD released last year of these sessions. It is well named, No Better Than This. It’s hard to imagine anything being better. The sound is primitive and yet clean. The musicians are all engaged and in love with the project. I have listened to this many, many times since obtaining it last year. I continue to return to it again and again. The film only adds to the record’s appeal.

The live concert footage is close-up and dirty. Mellencamp had warned Markus that when it came to concert footage others had done it bigger and better, but Markus rose to the challenge and captured an intimacy that the bigger films miss. He and his son are on the stage with smaller cameras they can more easily manipulate. They capture a sense of excitement and immediacy that is rare in concert films.

Altogether these songs are placed in the context of a road trip. A hejira almost; an odyssey for sure. One wonders who got the most out of this journey. For Mellencamp and his band, it was virtually business as usual. Another tour; a set of recording dates. For Markus and his son though, it sounds as though it was far deeper than that. Kurt Markus wrote and reads the narration. There are few, if any, standard interview sessions. In fact, the one interview that I remember is tacked onto the end of the credits, and marked “epilog”. Markus asks Mellencamp a few questions and the silent singer is shown nodding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in reply. Then Mellencamp speaks and says, “this film isn’t about me anyway ... it’s about YOU.” Markus considers this and says, “It’s about John Mellencamp’s music.”

I was late coming to appreciate John Mellencamp’s music myself, but after a brilliant album and this moving film, I’d have to agree that the film is about more than just a man (musician or filmmaker) but it is about everyone who is touched by this music. It’s about you.  

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at http://rylander-rylander.blogspot.com. He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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