“John Mellencamp: It’s About You” is a documentary directed, shot and edited by professional photographer Kurt Markus and his son, Ian Markus. The film’s title refers to a debate between Mellencamp and Kurt as to whom the subject of the film would be. Mellencamp wanted the movie to be about Kurt; Kurt wanted it to be about Mellencamp, but by the end of its seventy-nine minute running time, the debate’s winner is as unclear as the movie’s point, purpose, or reason for existing. It’s a film that really should have stayed on the cutting room floor and likely would have were it not for John Mellencamp’s name in the title. At the beginning of the doc, Kurt admits that neither he nor his son know anything about filmmaking. The man is not kidding.
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.
‘It’s About You’ was shot during the summer of 2009, a recent high point in Mellencamp’s career. He was in the midst of a national tour, making stops at famous landmarks like Savannah’s First African Baptist Church, Sun Studio in Memphis and the hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson recorded songs in the 1930s. In these famous locales, Mellencamp records the tunes that make up his acclaimed 2010 album No Better Than This. But as the documentary doesn't benefit from Mellencamp's involvement we're left with Kurt Markus narrating the proceedings. And the results mark the far too frequent low points of the film.
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.
It’s a shame that narratively, the film is so shoddily put together, because it looks great. Shooting on 8mm, Kurt & Ian Markus have a real knack for capturing live performances—be it on stage or in the studio. There are some great photographic sequences in the film, such as when the filmmakers capture a young woman dancing at a Mellencamp concert. It is also a treate that the filmmakers often let entire songs play out uninterrupted. It would certainly be interesting for the Markuses to trying their hand at directing a different project with a subject willing to be interviewed, a sound man on set and, please, no narration. And while the Super 8 footage looks great, the camera seems highly impractical for making a music doc. Kurt describes using a device called a “blimp” to dampen the noise that the 8 mm camera makes. He also has to reload film constantly (a reel only allows three minutes of footage at a time) and never has a moment to do so as Mellencamp jumps into a new take as soon as the previous one’s over.
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]