SXSW 2011 Review: IT’S ABOUT YOU
Most fathers and sons bond through activities like fishing, camping, or road trips – opportunities to get away and connect with one another. But when your father is a photographer and happens to be friends with a fairly famous musician, a cross-country road trip turns into an opportunity to create a film that not only explores the various ways of capturing images, but also seeks to give new insight into a well-known artist.
The key to being an artist is having the ability to bare one’s soul to an audience through expressions like music, acting, photography, or painting. Yet it seems that despite giving us song lyrics or photographs that are more revealing than mere words ever could be, the artists themselves remain mysterious creatures that people always want an even more in-depth look at.
Photographer Kurt Markus, along with his son Ian, aimed to do just that as they took to the road in the summer of 2009 to document Kurt’s friend and photography subject, John Mellencamp, as he toured and recorded his latest album. Narrated by Kurt, the film seeks to show a different side of Mellencamp that neither Kurt nor we had seen before.
Filmed almost like a music video – Mellencamp’s music plays over footage of landscapes from the view from a car window to the crowd at his shows. Rather than just show Mellencamp performing on stage or in the studio, the environment and people surrounding him become just as important. The camera would hold on a girl dancing in the crowd longer than it ever would on Mellencamp, but it worked to show the effect of his music on his audience rather than just his performance of the song.
Although full of footage, photographs, and music from Mellencamp, the film is really about Markus and his process of taking in the changing landscape of America and the use and limitations of the various cameras he worked with. It seems when artists try and document other artists; the camera inevitably turns back around on themselves. With IT’S ABOUT YOU, you truly feel like you are on a road trip with someone looking to learn more about his country and the different tools for his medium as much as, if not more than, the subject he is documenting.
As Mellencamp records his album in various locations around the country, he continuously uses a single microphone that he and his band would crowd around and perform to. Many of the musicians are playing the music for the first time in the recording sessions and will use just a take or two to find their rhythm and use whichever take “feels best” rather than something perfectly rehearsed. It is this idea of striping things down to their simplest nature that runs throughout the film from the Super8 camera footage to this more natural recording approach. Kurt laments on the loss of a more simple time when commerce in America thrived on the shops on Main Street and rather than malls centered around the suburbs.
Despite the use of narration, the film falters at finding its true voice. It is never quite clear how each moment connects to an overall story as the sound bites Kurt lays over certain scenes seem more like watching a slide show of someone’s vacation rather than a cohesive film. The visuals are striking and Kurt’s experience as a photographer shines through, but the constant switch between color and black and white, the filming of still photographs to actual film begin to feel overly stylized which ironically goes against this idea of getting back to what is simple.
At the beginning of the film, Kurt states IT’S ABOUT YOU is about Mellencamp, but in the end, the film seemed much more about Kurt and his process as a photographer, filmmaker, and artist. Fans of photography and music, particularly those who enjoy Markus and Mellencamp's work, should find this film engaging, but it may be hard for it to find an audience outside of that.