This is a documentary about John Mellencamp that features no actual interviews with the supposed subject. It’s a concert film where the directors chose to leave the “sound guy” at home, as he would have cut into valuable father/son bonding time. It’s an expose in which the co-director/narrator willfully admits that he’s not going to take measures to get a “more personal view of the band and crew” because 1) he’s “too old for that shit” and 2) “there ought to be a no-camera zone. This isn’t a reality TV show.” It certainly isn’t. Reality TV crews try.
The dry, boring timbre of Kurt’s voice is comparable to a low-key Ben Stein or a timid local business owner who’s only on camera because his name’s in all the advertising. Kurt’s voice wouldn’t matter if the narration was worth listening to, but it rarely is. Here’s a typical passage: “We drove back into midtown St. Louis, past all the city lights…What will those tall buildings look like fifty years into the future? Like a bigger version of vacated small town America.” The narration feels like bootlegged versions of Mellencamp’s own lyrics, stripped of all meaning, doubling over on themselves. It’s hard to tell if the narration exists because Mellencamp was reluctant to be interviewed, or if it’s because the directors never had a sound guy on set.
In addition to the places where Mellencamp records his album, the old methods he uses are intriguing: he records with live musicians, using a single fifty year-old microphone. T-Bone Burnett appears in the second half of the film, as Mellencamp’s producer. There also is some interesting footage of Elaine Irwin, who was married to Mellencamp at the time of filming (they separated in late 2010), getting baptized with her husband while at the aforementioned Baptist Church. It would have been great to get insights from either spectrum -- his muscial collaborators or wife -- but instead, we get more mind-numbingly sanctimonious rants on the state of business in small town America: “…the fight has been lost… The decay of America is original and massive in its scale.” It’s hard to imagine Kurt’s words lacking more authority.
Ultimately, though, this is a movie in which it was announced at the beginning that the filmmakers were amateurs, and sadly, their novice approach never becomes endearing. There is probably a nice documentary to be made about John Mellencamp, and maybe the Markus father and son have an intriguing music documentary in their future, but this isn’t it. In the end, the film’s title is less of a tribute than an indictment, “No, I insist: ‘It’s About You.’” [D]