PopMatters: An Entertaining, Thoughtful, And Often Beautiful Poem: 'John Mellencamp: It’s About You'
06.18.2012 - By Jedd Beaudoin -
On the road with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson during 2009, John Mellencamp
decided to record a new album––mostly––on the road. He’d stop in Memphis at Sun
Studios, at the same hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson committed some
tracks to wax in 1936, and at a Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia. He invited
photographer Kurt Marcus along for the ride and Marcus brought his son Ian to
complete the two-man crew. The result? A surprisingly entertaining, thoughtful,
and often beautiful poem about something.
It doesn’t really matter what this film is about, but let’s rattle off a few
options just the same. Some might say we can glean something about a vanishing
way of life in America and although that theme certainly bobs up here and there,
it’s only part of the story. It’d be easy to say that it’s a film about a father
and son but that’s only part of the story. You could make the argument that it’s
about how the individual experiences art but that doesn’t fully get it either,
although in truth this last is my personal reading.
The one thing Marcus and Son’s film is not about is celebrity. This is not a
rundown of each of Mellencamp’s numerous albums, the story of how he wrote “Pink
Houses”, how he refused to remain John Cougar forever. Mellencamp’s peers don’t
show up to sing the praises of American Fool, Scarecrow, or The Lonesome Jubilee
and we don’t have sit through the artist unraveling spools of self analysis as
he details what went wrong in each of his failed marriages.
The elder Markus tells us early on he’s not even allowed in Mellencamp’s
chill out trailer––and you won’t hear Seymour, Indiana’s favorite son say much
on camera that’s not related directly to the music and none of what he utters is
polished by the machinations of media savvy management. (In short, you’re not
going to walk away knowing much more about John Mellencamp the man than you did
before.) We’re also saved from an unending run through of Mellencamp’s greatest
hits––yep, you’ll hear “Pink Houses” and a few other radio staples, but they’re
just part of the natural landscape, nothing to get overly excited about.
What does matter is the relationship that Marcus develops not so much with
his subject but with the project itself and, ultimately, himself and his son.
Maybe. It doesn’t really matter––just watching this anti-rock doc is reward
enough that you needn’t worry about all of that. We miss moments that a
“star”-based documentary would have played to the hilt––including a session
player revealing that Mellencamp was one of Johnny Cash’s favorite songwriters.
We don’t spend a great deal of time focused on T Bone Burnett’s relationship to
the project or the mythology he brings with him. That said, watching him work
his quiet magic mostly by being himself for the brief time he’s on the screen is
all quite enough.
There are problems––since Marcus isn’t dealing with a real plot there are
moments when the film meanders just a little. We accept that here, it’s part of
the charm. Marcus’ stilted voice also makes for hard going during the first ten
or so minutes of the film and then becomes one of the picture’s many
charms––mostly. The post-credits epilogue, should you choose to wait for it, is
probably the most unnecessary portion of the film.
There are no extras to speak of––just the film’s trailer––on this DVD, but
that too is probably just as well. It’s About You is its own succinct blessing.