At one point during Amos Poe’s documentary Steve Earle: Just an American Boy, Steve Earle is being driven through the nighttime streets of Nashville. The driver misses a turn, pulls a quick U-turn, and speeds off in the opposite direction. Earle orders the man to slow down, chastising, “I’m an ex-con, death penalty abolitionist, and the F.O.P. [Fraternal Order of Policemen] is based in Nashville.” Always a guy who’s never afraid to speak his mind, Earle knows a thing or two about trouble with authority. After a successful early career that eschewed the mainstream Nashville country scene, America’s great roots rock rebel bottomed out in 1994, when he was arrested for drug possession. After cleaning up, Earle began the second stage of his musical career, releasing an unprecedented string of superb albums, one after the other, climaxing with his triumphant, politically charged Jerusalem in 2002.
Along the way, Earle has become a staunch opponent of capital punishment in the United States, he’s become an anti-landmine activist, and has also emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of George W. Bush. His great ballad from Jerusalem, “John Walker’s Blues”, a sympathetic song about American Taliban member John Walker Lindh, had right-wing zealots accusing Earle of being unpatriotic in the year following 9-11, causing a small furor in the news media. “They may not be watching you,” says Earle during one live performance in the film, “but I promise you they’re watching me.”
Following Earle on his North American tour in the fall of 2002 and early 2003, Amos Poe had a terrific chance to put together the definitive profile of an artist who is at the peak of his career, producing great music, prose, and drama at such a prolific rate as he’d never done before, and although the 90-minute film offers an interesting look at a fascinating man, for the most part, it’s a blown opportunity. Shot entirely on digital video, Just an American Boy is an incredibly sloppy documentary; handheld shots during the live performances are barely above audience-shot bootleg quality, the sound is inconsistent, and cheesy video effects are often used to try to distract from the film’s amateurish look. Even worse, though, is the editing. Haphazardly assembled, the film jumps all over the place chronologically, with no flow whatsoever.
Despite its great number of shortcomings, the film is still compelling, thanks to Mr. Earle, who always has something to say. When he speaks, he’s always eloquent and witty, and the interview segments that are peppered throughout are all engaging. Earle talks about the state of America in early 2003, he voices his strong opinions on the death penalty (at one point, he talks about how the movie In Cold Blood gave him nightmares for days when he was a child), and hilariously describes the circumstances surrounding his 1994 arrest.
Just an American Boy‘s saving grace is the music, yet Poe still manages to shoot himself in the foot in that department. It’s not a concert film, but there are plenty of excellent live performances by Earle and his great backing band The Dukes, including such songs as the classics “Copperhead Road” and “Guitar Town”, his great “Amerika 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)”, a blazing rendition of “The Unrepentant”, a superb bluegrass performance of “The Mountain”, the emotional death row protest song “Billy Austin”, and a fiery cover of Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love & Understanding”. Most frustrating, though, is the portion of the film that focuses on “John Walker’s Blues”. You see Earle defending his song in various interviews, and you see clips of him performing it on Fox News, a radio station, in rehearsal, and in a live setting, but the music is always interrupted by interview clips, drowning out most of the lyrics. The song is one of Earle’s greatest achievements, but those people new to his music don’t have a chance to hear the entire thing for themselves. It’s a grievous error by Poe.
One thing Poe does get across is the fact that Earle is one passionate man. At one point, he’s touring, defending his music to the right-wing media, rewriting his play about Karla Faye Tucker (the first Texas woman to be executed), and arguing on the phone with the play’s director, seemingly at once. Earle’s presence alone keeps Just an American Boy afloat, despite Poe’s directorial ineptitude. Unfortunately, the only people the film will appeal to are fans of Earle’s music, and even they won’t be completely satisfied; anyone unfamiliar with the man and his music will probably be too distracted by the film’s shoddy look. And to those fans who are thinking of buying this DVD: make sure you own the far, far superior companion live album first. It gives you a much more superior portrait of Steve Earle that Amos Poe could ever have managed.