If I seem more than a little conflicted about John Mellencamp, I've good reason: I'm echoing his history. Starting as John Mellencamp before becoming Johnny Cougar before becoming John Cougar before becoming John Cougar Mellencamp before finally becoming John Mellencamp again, I kinda got as dizzy as his highly commercial radio and "heartland" music too often was. Not my fault, blame it on the man. He spent so much time being compromised by record company assholes that I ended up not giving a shit and walked away. Never looked back either. So what made me want to possibly waste time with him now? What attracted my oft cynical critic's eye and ear to It's About You? Frankly, the fact that this is the fledgling film by a well-known photographer, John Markus, recruiting his son Ian and working in Super-8. Over the last coupla years, I've gotten more intensely into the film world, stocking up like a madman, especially Criterion editions, finding myself flabbergasted with masterpieces like The Battle of Algiers, Werner Herzog, and the some of the odder more eccentric side of the art. You promised to deliver more a quirk factor than I would have otherwise credited, and, what the hell, Mellencamp posed an interesting subject matter regardless, especially given my jaundiced experience with him, so…give it a go, right?
Straight from the start in this infectious fandango, you can expect the unexpected. That's what I came to the show for. Especially after glomming the box set of the BBS studio and watching Easy Rider again (God, except for Nicholson's knock-out stellar apppearance, what a pretentious piece of spoiled-brat Hollywood Kidz dog poop that goddamned film was!), I needed to see something that seemed at least peripherally reminiscent of the old days—not of Sparta or Athens but the 70s. Within minutes, I could tell that John Markus remembered. His format and unorthdox mode zoomed right back to the art house heyday. Hell, he and Mellencamp are 62, older than my own aging rear end, so they should know well enough what the Golden Era was. But they weren't caught backwards like old acid damage victims, 'cause just a few minutes into things and there's Cornel West and Tavis Smiley backstage at a concert, having a good ol' time. WTF? But, yeah, there they were. Interesting.
Equally interesting is the fact that Mellencamp kept Markus at arm's length right from the start. Good. I've often averred a critic's role is compromised in becoming friendly with the subject to hand, so perhaps Mellencamp was aware of this or maybe he was just boss classing again (that, too, is seen rather markedly in the opening segment), but it worked and worked well. Markus found himself nowhere near as highly directed as Pennekamp had been in his Dylan film, but there are still quite a few similarities harking back to that rightful classic. With It's About You, however, there's a lot to be read between the lines, and this designates Markus as a savvy constructor of immediate visual and subordinate narrative.
At the same time, Markus & Markus Inc. are constantly prowling for the perfect set shot, and they find many, one of the engaging aspects of It's About You, so Mellencamp may well have been more prescient than even I suspect in early on telling the director that the film would indeed be more about the photographer's art, 'cause it is, straight from the film-maker's mind and hands. What you see is the way such people move, the way they operate, how a documentary unfolds in their world. Nothing is static, everything shifts, angles become important, the eye never rests, and this sort of modus is always more obvious yet a good deal more obtuse with a still-shot inditer of images. Auteurs conduct themselves from another planet, photographers are earthier yet float within the same sphere. Markus the Elder, however, unfortunately speaks in a drab monotone, at first offputting until you understand he's revealing a torrent of information, a ton of fascinating insight, crafting his 80-minute final product to be as much about journalism on the trade, its apprehended materials, and moving pictures as about music per se and the peregrinations of a world-famed star.
The DVD clamshell claims Mellencamp possesses "musical genius". That's bullshit and only further corrupts a term horrifically raped by Edward Bernays' busy little mutant beaver children, admen, but John does make highly attractive music—sold 40 million albums as proof (that is, if you trust business crap, which I don't, and that means his record companies actually probably sold twice that because no musician ever gets to inspect the books)—and It's About You marks a point in the minstrel's life where one must strongly suspect he has strong regrets about what went before, having sacrificed art for money. The private acoustic songs here are extremely expository of a completely different mindset than that, little pools where the guitarist-singer finally unfolds, drops the walls and attitudes in some keystone locations (Robert Johnson's San Antonio hotel room, Sun Studio, etc.). While the eye drinks it in, the ear is smoothed out rather nicely against a constant background of J.M.'s songs, and if the documentary was partly meant to revivify Mellencamp's métier, then it accomplishes that, as I find myself wanting to go back and search for what I'm hearing.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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