Sunday, February 10, 2013

John Mellencamp: Better Heard Than Seen

Years and years ago, before MTV and before CDs, my friend Tom Cochrun told me about this young rock and roll singer from Seymour, Indiana who was about to go on a national tour. He thought I should get a video camera and follow John Mellencamp around the country. For a lot of reasons (no money, no market for a film and fear of ending the tour in rehab), I instead headed to Washington, D.C. and became a bureaucrat for a while.

As John’s career took off into the super star stratosphere, I often wondered what if I had gambled on the film. That is, until now when I watched a Showtime release of a movie completed in 2010 by Kurt Markus and his son, Ian, “John Mellencamp: It’s About You.” The title is a play on John’s challenging Ian, saying this won’t be about me, it will be about you (the filmmaker).

Markus was an old friend from John’s New York days who John invited to film the tour of historical venues and concert gigs with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson (neither of whom appear). The result proves that best intentions often lead to unwatchable results. The film includes endless trucking shots through the countryside, some live concerts and some studio sessions. All of it is so grainy that it looks as if Final Cut Pro has come up with a Georges Seurat-Pointilist Filter effect. At first I thought it was a matter of low light problems using Super 8 film but it was still there when they were shooting outdoor audience shots before a live concert. I have seen better docs about Mellencamp when he actually talks about his career, his painting, and his music but this fly-on-the wall approach made you felt that at the end of each scene, you were going to be swatted (and in San Antonio they closed the curtains and the film went to black in mid recording session). Markus laments his difficulty in making this work when he says he had “no screenplay, no plot, no control.” Sounds like the definition of a home movie.

The off-putting visual look and the frenetic editing obscure some nice moments as Mellencamp and T. Bone Burnett use old RCA mikes and 1950’s Ampex mono recorders to try to recreate a classic sound in places like a Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia or the hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson made his iconic album in 1936. (“It’s weird being here.”)

And even through the graininess, it was nice to see the interiors of the Sun Studios in Memphis where longtime session players like David Roe are still turning out the hits.

Despite some snippets here and there (“This is my least favorite song on the whole f---ing album.”) we never get much insight into the music making process, which is too bad. From what clips I did hear for the album, John is still going strong--searching for soulful musical roots rather than the pop hooks and youthful anthems that have sold 40 million albums and led to 22 top forty hits.

Even though Markus did not travel on the tour bus, there are some revealing moments. After the session at the Baptist Church, John and then wife Elaine don white robes and are baptized in the full immersion tank (with no explanation). And John still chain smokes, even when he is recording in the historic studios. And T-Bone Burnett, when given the screen time, can still play.

Despite the shaggy dog nature of the film, I did hear enough to want to get the CD they produced from this tour, No Better Than This.

John must have liked this film better than I did. I read where he played it at the start of each concert for the next tour. I hope it was an edited portion because paying customers deserved better.

At one point, Markus narrates: “the simple way to look at this film is to recognize that all it takes is the arm strength to lift the camera to my eye and finger strength to pull the trigger…” Recording images does not make a film, much less a documentary.


  1. Frank-
    Amen to your concluding sentence. You would have made a much better film, of that I'm sure.
    Despite the intrusion of a bad film, sounds as though John continues to make good music.
    And sounds as though he is still a punk.