Saturday, February 11, 2012

Friday Film Pick: This Is NOT America – David Kleijwegt (2000)

In February of 2000, a young band from Kentucky toured Holland and it was filmed for Dutch Music Television. That band was My Morning Jacket and the film was David Klejegt's This Is NOT America. With the exception of the 2006 concert film Okonokos, it is the only film produced on the band and to this day the only film including interviews with its founding members. While the lineup of the band has been completely overhauled (only bassist, Two-Tone Tommy, and singer-songwriter, Jim James, remain) the film has only increased in relevance and beauty over the past 12 years.

In early 2000, My Morning Jacket had only released one album and had only performed live on perhaps two dozen occasions. For a band now known for its epic stage show and a string of off beat, genre bending recordings it is hard to imagine how different their lives were back in that snowy millennial winter. While their first record, The Tennessee Fire, had begun to be circulated in the American south, it was in the Netherlands that the band really broke. There never seems to be any real rhyme or reason for crossover appeal of American rock artists abroad. Why Idaho bard Josh Ritter is worshipped in Ireland yet remains obscure to mainstream audiences here in the States, will never be understood by me. In any event, in order for My Morning Jacket to reach their most fervent fan base, they had to fly halfway across the world to Holland.

The film has a beautiful look to it. The heavy use of atmospheric b-roll (foggy Euro highways, sleepy looking neighborhoods, cobblestone clad Dutch sidewalks) to underpin the band's commentary creates an immediate atmosphere of calm and receptiveness. You're just as happy to listen to Jim James talk about his favorite breakfast bagel as explain the timelessness of The Rolling Stones, because it looks great either way. Also Kleijwegt chose not to use complete performances, sometimes entering into a song halfway through a raucous guitar jam. This blend of quiet, pensive moments and distorted barroom bravado establishes a pace that makes the most of its relatively modest 40 minute running time.

The film also takes special care to give each member of the band their own defining moment. Drummer, J. Glenn, reveals details of his family's modest tobacco farming roots as he sanitizes his latest tattoo in a hotel bathroom. While the infamously silent Tommy Blankenship maintains his quiet cool throughout the film, he and guitarist Johnny Quaid act almost as comic relief, fooling about in the background of most shots. It's obvious that at this point in the band's dynamic, they provided a much needed pressure valve for these wayward Kentucky boys so far from their home. Of course it is the baby-faced frontman, Jim James, who steals the show.

James, more so than most songwriters of our generation (with the exception of maybe Win Butler and Regine Chassagne), has had an aura of magical divination thrust upon him. As if his songwriting and vocal talents were cosmically bestowed, as opposed to a result of relentless hard work. While it's obviously not true, the myth of this ghostly voiced young man was already being encouraged here. In a kaleidoscopic, slow motion sequence, James explains his lyrical inspiration by recounting a rather disturbing and psychedelic dream; “The worst dream I ever had I was on a playground and I was running up a slideboard with a fork in my hand. At the top of the slideboard was this poodle barking and I took the fork and stuck it in its eyeball.” This terrifying narration fades into a haunting rendition of “I Think I'm Going To Hell” with James standing alone in front of futurist Dutch columns lit with red and orange and yellow. It's an incredible and simple visual that was no doubt unplanned, as are most of life's most transcendent moments.

It is in this respect that This Is NOT America remains such a vital and enduring portrait,above all else it is candid and spontaneous. It is a snapshot of a band so early in their career that they have no expectations for it. With no map to guide them in this foreign territory, they allow themselves to be themselves with no hint of pretense. My Morning Jacket would never be this particular band again. They'd become something else, something more ambiguous, away from the public eye.

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