With 2011 going down as a year for nostalgia in cinema, one leftover not to be overlooked is the documentary "It's About You," a fittingly retro film of John Mellencamp during the making of his 2010 album No Better Than This. For that, Mellencamp was nostalgic himself, going old school with mono recordings produced using antique sound equipment and other outmoded methods at various historical settings such as Sun Studios and The First African Baptist Church. In accordance with this vintage concept, photographer Kurt Markus and son Ian shot the film mostly with Super 8 cameras and no additional crew, and the result is what I'd call a sort of "period piece" documentary.
What keeps "It's About You" from being easily mistaken for something made in the past is the nostalgic tone and narration. The Markuses focus much of the imagery on the decaying downtowns encountered while following Mellencamp on tour in 2009. With very little diegetic sound recorded for the film — mostly we only hear what could be gotten from concerts and snippets of conversation taped incidentally during the No Better Than This sessions — the elder co-director provides us with a voiceover that is more elegiac than expository. Soft and grizzled, this poetic first-person commentary reflects on a lost America, the ghostly relics of yesteryear that should be "our biggest attraction."
As for Mellencamp, he's obviously not the young rocker he was in his prime. But other than looking at his aged face and hearing him curse a lot more than you might expect (or maybe it's just me), there's not much about him here to walk away with. Maybe that's part of the sentimental romance of the piece. Partly due to the occasional hit from the '80s showing up on the soundtrack, I just keep recalling the Mellencamp of my memory (this causes me to also keep slipping in "Cougar" whenever I write his name), so if the point of the doc is to get us reaching backward, too, it works.
30 years ago, I thought Mellencamp was about as "America" as you could get, or at least he seemed the musical representative of the Heartland part of the country (for an ignorant kid like me, "Jack & Diane" was like an unofficial national anthem). And watching the film just after the holidays, which I spent in one of those Southern towns where the old courthouse-centered squares are tragically wasting away in the shadow of arterial highways packed with strip malls and box stores, I was especially in a mood appropriate to its theme. Now the lyrics of that little ditty about two American kids seem less ironic. But the age we want to hold on is as much broadly historical as it is about a point in our life.
"It's About You" is similarly both general and personal. Mellencamp is said to have dared his old friend, the elder Markus, to make the documentary. It's his first film, as he reminds us in the sometimes excruciatingly subjective narration, though he had experience in directing music videos. And the title comes up at the beginning and end as having an uncertain meaning. Does the "you" signify Mellencamp, as Markus wishes, or does it refer to the filmmaker, who is never seen but is clearly the self-indulgent protagonist, introspectively talking about himself and the difficulty of making his movie. I think that "you" can also mean all Americans, myself included.
But maybe it's really the "about" part that's troublesome, because no "you" is substantially expounded upon. The Markuses have made a complimentary film for fans of a specific album, perhaps, but otherwise it's a mostly forgettable sketch that mixes self-portraiture with rough outlines of landscapes and sprinkled with an old timey feeling. For every piece of beautiful concert footage and every bit of interesting or significant remark, Kurt Markus has to ruin it with a handful of unnecessary comments about this uncaptured moment or that filmmaking choice or apt yet unremarkable anecdotes of his familiarity with Mellencamp.
That would-be main subject, who is rather indifferent and guarded for a man who suggested the film in the first place and who states that "there's always honesty in everything," is unfortunately as unknowable here as those bygone times and places are to anyone who didn't experience them in the past. As a loving yet self-involved portrait of a musical personality, it's actually aesthetically a bit less sloppy than the preferrably recommended "Paul Williams Still Alive" (sadly still without distribution), but it's also terribly less engaging or revelatory. In this instance doing the best one can is not quite good enough.
"It's About You" is now playing in NYC and opens in Los Angeles this Friday
Recommended If You Like: John Mellencamp; "Tell Them Who You Are"; nostalgic Americana