With the help of her mother, family, friends, and fellow musicians, Aiyana Elliott reaches for her father, legendary cowboy troubadour, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. She explores who he is and how...
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With the help of her mother, family, friends, and fellow musicians, Aiyana Elliott reaches for her father, legendary cowboy troubadour, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. She explores who he is and how he got there, working back and forth between archival and contemporary footage. Born in 1932 in Brooklyn, busking through the South and West in the early 50s, a year with Woody Guthrie, six years flatpicking in Europe, a triumphant return to Greenwich Village in the early 60s, mentoring Bob Dylan, then life on the road, from gig to gig, singing and telling stories. A Grammy and the National Medal of Arts await Jack near the end of a long trail. What will Aiyana find for herself? Written by
Of general interest due to Ramblin' Jack Elliott's role in creating the archetype of the American folk music hero, given tangible historic expression in his serving as the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, specifically, as the model for the latter's original stage persona. Elliott, fashioning himself after, as protégé of, Guthrie, was one of the first to imagine and create the role of the American minstrel from which innumerable others have borrowed and to this day continue to borrow.
This film would have been infinitely more interesting without the first-person intrusion of the film maker, Elliott's daughter, who from the start sets out to have that one heart-to-heart with her daddy she never had; she almost makes herself the subject of this film, but who would see it if she were? The daughter-in-search-of-father theme interferes not only with the objectivity of this biography of folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott (1931-present), but it disrupts the chronological depiction of events: the film jumps confusingly between recent and distant past to accommodate the daughter's story, which includes redundant home-movie footage of her as a child. Does the world really need one more egocentric female narrative of the parent-that-never-was, of familial "dysfunction"? Bookstore shelves and the rolls of indie films are already overfilled with every conceivable variant of this bourgeois American-woman self-preoccupation. This domestic mindset is so pervasive that I suspect its root cause is the feminist parochialism of university writing and film departments in which these women were initially "empowered." And/or is this the self-pitying cultural legacy of psychoanalysis? (Faulkner: "motherblood with hate loves and cohabits.")
Yes, Ramblin' Jack was a lousy parent, always absent, on the road. Anyone who expected otherwise had to have been totally impervious to who and what he was. The very qualities that make him special, for which he is prized and loved, namely, his unspoiled childlike sense of wonder, the freshness and simplicity of his vision, his offbeat folky genuineness, all arise from the fact that Elliott from the first refused to grow up, that he willfully turned his back on the world of adult responsibility and conventional adult social identities, choosing, instead, to live out the fantasy of the cowboy troubadour, literally running away from his Brooklyn home to join the rodeo at the age of 16. Was this in reaction to the anhedonia of his Jewish parents, the echo of the holocaust in modern America? His mother (we are told) was a driven, unpleasant woman who wanted Jack to be a doctor just like his father, who (we are told) was an aloof workaholic. Elliott Adnopoz--Jack's real name--obviously rebelled against being force fed the conventional American dream, sought instead bohemian outlet in the romanticism of the American frontier, the American West.
Unlike Louis Prima: The Wildest, which was redeemed from its adulatory distortions by ample actual footage of its subject performing, this film mercilessly cuts into Ramblin' Jack's performances to editorialize on his failings and vent his daughter's frustrations. Still, because Elliott's life intersected so deeply and so often the currents of American folk and pop music, we are inevitably given a backstage glimpse of that larger, more important drama. His journeys encompassed the cultural suffocation of the Eisenhower years, the skiffle movement and origins of rock music in England, the American folk renaissance of the 60's, and the hippie culture of the West Coast. Alan Lomax, Dave van Ronk, Arlo and sister Nora Guthrie, Odetta, Kris Kristofferson, and Pete Seeger all check in with impressions and recollections of Jack.
One could only wish that Aiyana Elliott could have imbued her film with more of her father's casual charm, his gentle whimsiness. The heavy hand of this author makes one appreciate all the more Errol Morris, whose documentaries tell themselves without even the voice of a narrator.
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