Pop Entertainment: It's About You Review

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.