On the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson during 2009, John Mellencamp decided to record a new album––mostly––on the road. He’d stop in Memphis at Sun Studios, at the same hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson committed some tracks to wax in 1936, and at a Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia. He invited photographer Kurt Marcus along for the ride and Marcus brought his son Ian to complete the two-man crew. The result? A surprisingly entertaining, thoughtful, and often beautiful poem about something.
It doesn’t really matter what this film is about, but let’s rattle off a few options just the same. Some might say we can glean something about a vanishing way of life in America and although that theme certainly bobs up here and there, it’s only part of the story. It’d be easy to say that it’s a film about a father and son but that’s only part of the story. You could make the argument that it’s about how the individual experiences art but that doesn’t fully get it either, although in truth this last is my personal reading.
The one thing Marcus and Son’s film is not about is celebrity. This is not a rundown of each of Mellencamp’s numerous albums, the story of how he wrote “Pink Houses”, how he refused to remain John Cougar forever. Mellencamp’s peers don’t show up to sing the praises of American Fool, Scarecrow, or The Lonesome Jubilee and we don’t have sit through the artist unraveling spools of self analysis as he details what went wrong in each of his failed marriages.
The elder Markus tells us early on he’s not even allowed in Mellencamp’s chill out trailer––and you won’t hear Seymour, Indiana’s favorite son say much on camera that’s not related directly to the music and none of what he utters is polished by the machinations of media savvy management. (In short, you’re not going to walk away knowing much more about John Mellencamp the man than you did before.) We’re also saved from an unending run through of Mellencamp’s greatest hits––yep, you’ll hear “Pink Houses” and a few other radio staples, but they’re just part of the natural landscape, nothing to get overly excited about.
What does matter is the relationship that Marcus develops not so much with his subject but with the project itself and, ultimately, himself and his son. Maybe. It doesn’t really matter––just watching this anti-rock doc is reward enough that you needn’t worry about all of that. We miss moments that a “star”-based documentary would have played to the hilt––including a session player revealing that Mellencamp was one of Johnny Cash’s favorite songwriters. We don’t spend a great deal of time focused on T Bone Burnett’s relationship to the project or the mythology he brings with him. That said, watching him work his quiet magic mostly by being himself for the brief time he’s on the screen is all quite enough.
There are problems––since Marcus isn’t dealing with a real plot there are moments when the film meanders just a little. We accept that here, it’s part of the charm. Marcus’ stilted voice also makes for hard going during the first ten or so minutes of the film and then becomes one of the picture’s many charms––mostly. The post-credits epilogue, should you choose to wait for it, is probably the most unnecessary portion of the film.
There are no extras to speak of––just the film’s trailer––on this DVD, but that too is probably just as well. It’s About You is its own succinct blessing.
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