Ben Jelen: Give It All Away

Todd Goldstein

Ben Jelen

Give It All Away

Label: Maverick
US Release Date: 2004-04-13
UK Release Date: Available as import

Man, is Ben Jelen ever an easy target. Look at those cheekbones! Those tousled, windswept locks, that searching gaze, those pensive eyebrows … lord, he's good looking. Not to mention the silly promotional juggernaut rallying behind him: advance press is heralding 24-year-old Jelen as the soul-baring balladeer for a new generation of sensitive teenyboppers, a piano playing, pop-edged Bono with a model's looks and an aching heart. The young singer-songwriter ends up coming across like that moderately talented kid in your dorm who can play a bit of piano, a bit of guitar, and irritatingly manages to get a gaggle of girls swooning every time he sits down at the keys.

The crux of the Jelen debate (pronounced "yellin'") and the reason why he's so hard to pigeonhole, is that, against all odds, the guy's good. He's really good, and in an ever-more-fractured music scene dominated by hyper-cool irony and über-serious gloom, Ben Jelen throws an unforeseen monkey wrench into the critical machinery: sincerity. Jelen's debut is a hopeful, if uneven, album of earnest, piano-based, pop-rock, entitled Give It All Away. Jelen's tunes are as sharp as his bone structure, and though his sincerity can be grating, and his lyrics frequently fall short, there's always an audience for heartfelt pop songs (read: pubescent girls), and they'll certainly be charmed by Jelen's tear-jerking melodicism.

Give It All Away isn't a groundbreaking album, nor is it terribly rebellious, though it clearly isn't intended to be either. The arrangements swirl and twinkle, building to orchestral choruses when necessary and shrinking into stripped-down confessionals when appropriate. Tasteful use of banjo and violin (Jelen plays both), and a smattering of strings and electronics keep the eclectic-minded listener happy. Comparisons to piano men Elton John and Billy Joel are apt, but Jelen's influences seem more in line with adult-alternative pioneers like Peter Gabriel or folk-pop troubadours like Sarah McLaughlin; his melodies tug at your heartstrings, rather than tickling your ribcage. Jelen's voice recalls that histrionic piano-goof in your dorm, but with just a bit more panache -- he may have a model's good looks, but he plays the everydude admirably.

Jelen gilds his compositions with an impressive maturity -- many of tracks on Give It All Away reach a level of melodic nuance that any young songwriter would kill for. The hook in "She'll Hear You", a gorgeous descending refrain, has the classic trappings of the great tunesmiths, like Elton John shaking hands with Tears for Fears; "Come On", the first single from the album, has a sky-high chorus smacking of U2 at their most lovelorn. The lone cover on the album is from the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a pretty tune called "Wicked Little Town". The opportunity afforded by the cover song is not wasted on Jelen -- he shows his good taste in an esoteric choice, and his light touch in sweetening the acerbic original is tasteful, if a bit predictable.

Unfortunately, for all of its promising high points, Give It All Away isn't perfect. It's a top-heavy album -- the first five or six tracks are all stellar, but the tunes get a bit muddier and less striking from there. "Stay" feels painfully generic, and the maudlin chorus of "Falling Down" sounds like a leftover ballad from Counting Crows. Jelen's lyrics, also, aren't as profound as his poetic waxing would have one believe. Most of his lyrics are simply bland, covering typical lovelorn troubadour topics -- self-doubt, love-object-worship, girls who always leave, etc. The uptempo "Every Step", for example, contains the underwhelming line "Run away cause we need no reasons / Run away 'cause we love the night." Jelen's no Dylan, to be sure, but at least he delivers his platitudes with enough conviction to push his more cringe-inducing lyrical turns into the background of sugar-sweet melodies.

Jelen is a well-designed product -- he appears attractive, talented, and sincere as all hell -- and as a consequence it's a bit hard to be a believer in the face of such careful spin-doctoring. Ideally the songs would speak for themselves, but Jelen's major-label caretakers sabotage that possibility by covering his work with professional gloss. Take "Christine", one of two Matrix-helmed track on the album. Here, Team Avril's influence seems all too transparent, and, as the producers' hired-gun status suddenly comes clear, it makes one wonder why they might have been hired in the first place. I would like to think that Jelen's talent shines through the high-end production and A&R fooferah, but it's still too early to tell. Time will show whether this model citizen is truly as sincere as his publicists say he is, or if he's just another ivory-tickling dude in the dorm lounge.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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