Pop Entertainment: It's About You Review
01.05.2012 - Pop
Entertainment By Jay S. Jacobs
John Mellencamp may be an aging rock star, but he always seemed to have more of
an affinity with the old time roots artists than the stadium artists that he
spent most of the 80s and 90s sharing stages with. Therefore, you would not
expect a documentary on Mellencamp's latest tour and album to be typical
rock-doc fare. Its About You is certainly not.
Those looking for a straight Mellencamp greatest hits concert are barking up the
wrong tree here. While the film is nearly wall-to-wall music, there are only
four of his hits performed here. At the very beginning of the film he performs
"Pink Houses" and "Paper in Fire" and then the film closes out with a snippet of
Small Town and then "Crumbin Down." (A fifth single "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." is
played in its original studio incarnation over the closing credits.)
However It's About You is about so much more than just the hits. Besides,
Mellencamp knows that rock is a young mans game. With his last top 40 hit, "Key
West Intermezzo [I Saw You First]," about 15 years in the rear-view mirror,
Mellencamp is a very different musician than he was when he first stormed the
pop charts under the stage name of John Cougar.
Mellencamp invited photographer Kurt Markus and his son to come along as he
toured the country and recorded his lo-fi album No Better Than This. That album
was recorded live in such legendary musical spots as Sun Studios in Memphis, The
First African Baptist Church in Savannah and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San
Antonio (a room where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson famously had recorded.)
Mellencamp gave the photographers (this is their first film) great freedom and
great access but very little guidance. He told them that all of the live
concert songs had been filmed before, more professionally and probably better,
so he wanted them to put their own spin on the project.
This artistic independence is both freeing and a little daunting for the novice
filmmakers. They are basically without a script here. Mellencamp allows them
amazing entre to watch him in action; however he only does one brief interview
segment in the beginning. Mellencamp's tour mates Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson
are off-limits (particularly the notoriously shy Dylan) and the band members are
even less available for interview than the leader.
So how are the Markuses supposed to fill an hour and twenty minutes? they fret.
Kurt decided to take Mellencamp's instruction "It's about you" literally,
narrating the film and trying to find the thread to connect everything.
Sometimes it can meander a bit , Markus, ruminations on the death of urban life
or his periodic soliloquies about his uncertainty on how to do justice to his
subject , but it is often fascinating. Still, Markus spends lots of time on his
own artistic intentions, but not so much on Mellencamp's. We don't learn much
about Mellencamp as a person or an artist, we just watch him at work without
always getting an insight into what went into the songs.
However, the real reason for the film is much more pronounced, the music and the
look of the film. The music is rather arresting, much of it the songs of
No Better Than This recorded live on camera. It's Mellencamp's best work in
years, greatly because of its lack of frills and pretention.
The Markuses photographic background and lack of one in rock filmmaking has
given the film a gorgeous, sepia-toned aura. Lacking any of the slickness or
tricks of normal concert movies, the footage here is in 8mm, grainy, often black
and white, very old-fashioned looking and surprisingly visually arresting.
It's About You is far from a traditional music documentary, but it was never
trying to be that. Instead, it is an interesting new artistic flourish in a
style that had grown stale in other hands.