What becomes a rock ‘n’ roll legend most? Commissioning a film crew to follow him around on tour and recording an album. But John Mellencamp gave the photographer, and his friend, Kurt Markus complete freedom in the making of Markus’s first film, which draws on his 35-year career in landscape, celebrity, fashion, and travel photography. Mellencamp insists It’s About You.
Markus brought along only one crew member, his film student son Ian, to shoot in the home movie style of Super 8, interspersed throughout with his beautiful black-and-white still photographs. Deciding to spend time filming and bonding with Ian, Markus eschews formal interviews with Mellencamp in his private Airstream luxury RV or backstage. Instead, he supplements the concerts and recording sessions by narrating an odyssey through the themes of Mellencamp’s working-class, heartland music in what he calls “a visual soundtrack.” Making keen observations in a deep monotone, he sounds like Studs Terkel looking at the decline of opportunities in America.
Filmed during Mellencamp’s summer 2009 tour with (the unseen) Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, two of Mellencamp’s greatest hits open (“Pink Houses”) and close (“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”) the documentary, but the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer has moved off the pop charts into bluesy, introspective albums that hearken back to his inspirations, and the filming follows his journey through the roots of his music. Many of the performances are from Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), so when the 60 year old introduces a song as being for “my generation,” he doesn’t mean it as a nostalgia pitch, but as an acknowledgment of physical aches and pains, emotional regrets, and impending mortality, though he chain smokes offstage despite his well-known heart problems.
As a Montana-native, Markus first looks at and ruminates on the Great Plains landscape and relates it to Mellencamp’s home state of Indiana, without mentioning Mellencamp’s co-founding of Farm-Aid to help family farmers, but adding several references to writers Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. (Mellencamp quite creditably acted in and directed Falling from Grace a decade ago from McMurtry’s script.) The tour heads south, where Mellencamp begins recording the spare No Better Than This (2010), starting at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, GA, with lots of images of the gospel choir, church ladies, adorable kids, and the cramped underground railway station. He performs the track “Thinking About You” on a big stage the next night, and Markus, quite unusually for such films, focuses on the sidemen, zooming in on an entrancing guitar riff behind Mellencamp—to gradually reveal the renowned music producer T Bone Burnett, whose work on the films Crazy Heart (2009) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) indelibly infused their themes of Americana and being left behind.
Burnett produced both of Mellencamp’s recent albums, and one of the treats is seeing his influence at the resonant recording locales. In Memphis, with its diners out of an Edward Hopper painting, the rockabilly “Coming Down the Road” is recorded at the landmark Sun Studios, with an elder stand-up bassist who worked with many of legends there, along with contemporary guitar phenom Marc Ribot. Chasing more ghosts, Mellencamp and Burnett record “Right Behind Me” in the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson taped blues classics in 1936.
Markus gets marvelously close up on stage and at the recording sessions, but with the constant switching between color and processed black-and-white film, he comes close to a pretentious homage to the vérité concert work of Albert Maysles (Soul Power) and D. A. Pennebaker (whose additional Dylan footage was released as 65 Revisited). He also falls for the cliché of lingering too long on a young woman dancing sensually in the audience. (Someday summer concert films will also take long looks at the young, shirtless guys for us other viewers.)
Stay through the detailed credits for the epilogue. As the camera, for the first time, just looks straight on Mellencamp without a mike or guitar, Markus considers what he achieved through the film, who really is the “you” in the title, and summarizes with satisfaction, for himself and the mostly delighted viewer, “It’s about the music.”