‘It’s About You’: It ain’t you, babe

January 3, 2012


Think of “It’s About You” as the “Tree of Life” of rock-docs: a movie so in love with atmospherics and self-examination that it completely loses track of its subject.

As rock documentaries go, “It’s About You,” ostensibly a film about John Mellencamp by photographer Kurt Markus and his son, Ian, is both insubstantial and self-indulgent. While the Markuses had an all-access pass to film Mellencamp as he performed and recorded on the 2009 tour (with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson) that ultimately produced his 2010 album, “No Better Than This,” that was as close as they ever got. You never even see Dylan or Nelson.

According to Markus’ voice-over narration, Mellencamp invited Markus to film the tour – and he and his son decided to shoot it on Super-8, as well as with digital and still cameras. While criss-crossing the country, Mellencamp stopped to do some rootsy recording – simple microphones, reel-to-reel tape decks – in places like an Alabama church and the original Sun recording studios.

Well, not that rootsy. He does have producer T-Bone Burnett along to honcho the sessions. Think of it as cutting-edge roots or, perhaps, faux roots.

Certainly there is something haunting about Mellencamp, hunkered over a guitar, singing a bluesy original tune in the same hotel room in San Antonio where Robert Johnson supposedly recorded his historic and seminal blues tracks. Mellencamp is a no-bullshit artist, one who perhaps comes closest of any of his contemporaries to matching Bruce Springsteen in his ability to write lyrics and melodies that capture the sense of ordinary people clinging desperately to a dream – or sadly letting it go.

But we learn nothing about Mellencamp’s creative process or his own thoughts about the music. He’s not shaping these tunes in the studio or figuring them out; he’s performing songs that are, in his mind, finished work. Again, the performances have power, but not the power of revelation.

As for the stage performances that make up the other part of this film, well, Markus himself says that the same kind of thing has been done in slicker, more professional fashion by other teams of music documentarians. You get the sense that anyone with half an eye, comparable equipment and access could have shot the same footage and probably even have edited it.

The final component consists of numerous shots from Markus’ car, driving through the flat flyover country that Mellencamp is touring. He talks in voiceover about the landscape, offering his thoughts about the places he’s visiting and his feelings about making the film. Really – who cares?

Mellencamp is a scrappy, hard-working character who has had a fascinating, variegated career. He’s gone from being a glam David Bowie knock-off called Johnny Cougar to an eminence grise in the roots-rock scene (though there aren’t many gray intruders noticeable in Mellencamp’s preternaturally dark thatch of hair).

But you’ll learn nothing about that career from this film because “It’s About You” isn’t about much.

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