Internationally renowned photographer Kurt Markus and his son Ian accepted an invitation from roots-rocker John Mellencamp to follow him on tour and produce a documentary about their experience. Mellencamp gave them a cryptic bit of instruction. “It’s about you,” he told them. So off they went, with a vintage 8mm movie camera and some simple sound equipment, to follow the band. What did they see? What did they learn? And why is this an important story to tell?
I have no idea.
While “documentary” may be a rather nebulous term for some, the form calls for a factual work with a point of view that carries dramatic tension. Documentary filmmakers don’t just head out into the world with a camera and a dream. A good documentary takes as much planning, if not more, than dramatic or even nonfiction filmmaking. It requires judicious editing and thoughtful, meticulous post-production work. Pulling that off is really tricky, and Kurt and Ian Markus fall well short of the mark.
It’s About You is directionless. Presented in chronological order, with date-identifying subtitles in an annoying handwriting-style font, the father-son duo presents us with concert footage, session footage and lots of passing scenery shot through the window of a moving car. Kurt Markus adds voice-over narration now and again, sometimes explaining what’s happening onscreen, other times waxing philosophic and introspective. Ian Markus adds some digital footage—mostly concert scenes—but we never hear his voice in the mix.
But what, exactly, is the film that results? It’s About You is not a concert film. The concert scenes are fractured and poorly framed. Although there are the requisite fans-in-the-arena shots, the filmmakers do not capture the intimate relationship between artist and audience. It’s About You is not a travelogue. The travel footage is simply boring. It’s unimaginable that in weeks of driving, the pair passed nothing more interesting than barns and cloverleaf interchanges on the highway. It’s About You is not a biopic. There is no interview footage with Mellencamp or any member of his touring band or staff. Two brief exchanges with him open and close the film, but they offer no insight into either artist or documentarians. There is no “fly-on-the-wall” footage of Mellencamp or his entourage traveling, relaxing, rehearsing. We don’t get a glimpse of what it takes to mount a successful tour, either technically or artistically. It’s About You could have been an excellent vehicle for an exploration of the relationship of father and son as they worked together to make a film. It could have been a brilliant opportunity to compare what Mellencamp does to what Mellencamp writes songs about. It could have been a heartfelt chronicle of an artist paying tribute to his roots while paying tribute to the fans who have supported him for nearly 40 years. Yet, despite Markus’s best effort to use nearly every cliché in the documentarist’s lexicon—grainy backlit shots, cut-to-black, montages of still photography—It’s About You never coalesces into a whole. It oozes about like a cinematic amoeba—structureless, gelid and pointless.
That said, there are a few bright spots. Mellencamp arranged to record tracks for his 2010 album No Better Than This in historically significant locations in Savannah, Memphis and San Antonio. Producer T-Bone Burnett features prominently here, and the filmmakers do a great job of demonstrating exactly how a producer brings out the best in an artist. It’s also clear that Mellencamp has great respect for American musical history, though poor editing undermines what could have been truly moving storytelling. Finally, the sound in It’s About You is exceptionally good. One would expect crowd noise to overwhelm small mics during arena-concert scenes, but that’s not the case. The recording-session sound is bright and crisp. (If only the film was really about the music.)
But for every shining moment—and they are rare—there are plenty of flaws that overshadow them. Particularly frustrating are the elementary errors. Kurt Markus refers to people by name in his narrative without identifying who they are—there’s a mysterious “Paul” that he mentions out of the blue. A careful perusal of the credits fails to identify anyone named Paul. We do not know Kurt’s son’s name until halfway through the film. We are never introduced onscreen to any of the touring band or staff. Anyone who’s been to any kind of live musical performance, including a grammar school band concert, will have experienced a closer relationship to an artist than the viewing audience feels to Mellencamp.
Kurt Markus’ commentary is boring at best and nonsensical at worst. It’s often at odds with what we are seeing while he’s talking. He seems fixated on the death of small towns and the importance of having a dream to pursue. And since its seems to have been hard to get candid footage of Mellencamp, Markus doesn’t even try.
Kurt and Ian Markus made a documentary, and titled it It’s About You. But it’s not. It’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s not about them, and it’s not about John Mellencamp. It’s not about anything.
Director: Kurt Markus, Ian Markus
Writer: Kurt Markus, Ian Markus
Starring: John Mellencamp, Elaine Irwin
Release Date: Jan. 4, 2012