REVIEW: John Mellencamp: It's About You Is a Bumpy, But Believably Human, Scrapbook of a Doc
John Mellencamp: It’s About You isn’t really about you, or me, or even about John Mellencamp, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who has built an enduring career with his eminently likable, real-person stage demeanor and his songs’ connection with the way regular people live. It’s About You is quite possibly mostly about the filmmaker, Kurt Markus, a commercial photographer who has shot portraits for publications including Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and GQ, as well as ad campaigns for the likes of BMW and Armani.
But that’s surprisingly OK: Mellencamp invited Markus and his son, Ian, to tag along, video camera in tow, to record his summer 2009 concert tour and to eavesdrop, visually and otherwise, on recording sessions for his 2010 album No Better Than This. Mellencamp even told Markus at the outset, somewhat cryptically, that the movie should be about Markus. And so It’s About You -- whatever the heck it’s actually about – is in the end a kind of visual journal, a photographer’s way of seeing and responding to what’s around him. Those events and moments and glancing touches might include a group of musicians huddled around a single microphone in Memphis’s hallowed Sun Studios, or the flash of producer extraordinaire T. Bone Burnett’s cuff-links during another session, held in the same room where Robert Johnson cut a potent handful of songs in 1936. Markus accompanies the visuals with a voice-over narration that’s sometimes grating and other times startling in its perceptions. The result is a kind of homespun video scrapbook, bumpy seams and glue splotches and all; it’s flawed, but at least it feels handmade and human.
Mellencamp could have faded away when he was still John Cougar Mellencamp, in the late 1980s, but somehow he’s managed to thrive as a modern rock’n’roll troubadour, standing tall and sturdy even alongside more massive luminaries like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. His low-key manner, as it’s revealed in It’s About You, is probably part of the key to his longevity: Even when he’s singing about boarded-up houses and busted American dreams, he never comes off as haranguing or overly morose – there’s always a glimmer of cautious optimism in his eyes. Markus captures that gleam both in the performance footage and in the more spontaneous recording sessions. Some of these sessions took place at the First African Baptist Church, in Savannah, Ga., which Markus tells us is the oldest black church in America. He also tells us about – though doesn’t show us – the bullet-size holes in the church’s floor, used to provide ventilation for the runaway slaves who were once harbored there. And we see Mellencamp and his then-wife, Elaine (the two have since split), donning white robes before they’re dunked in the church’s baptismal pool. There’s a kind of offhanded grace in the image. It’s not that Mellencamp and his wife aren’t taking the moment seriously; it just seems to be more of a piece with everyday living rather than some monumental event.
This isn’t, strictly speaking, a concert film, and at one point Markus half-apologizes for not having a sound person along: He wanted to keep the whole thing as intimate as possible, and for that reason, he even refuses to set foot on Mellencamp’s tour bus. He states that he believes some moments, even on tour, should be kept private. But the real intimacy of It’s About You comes through in Markus’s footage of faded, semi-deserted Midwestern downtown streets, with their battered storefronts and rusty signage. Markus narrates some of this footage in a sort of numbed monotone. And just when you might be wishing that he’d shut up and let the images speak for themselves, he comes out with something that stops you cold. “These empty shells of better days are the biggest attraction America has going for it,” he says at one point, meaning that they’re visions of something truly American that persist even in the face of economic hardship and decay. His camera shows us deserted drive-thru restaurants and shuttered shops in sections of San Antonio, and he remarks that it’s as if a plague had wiped out a whole population, suddenly and thoroughly. “It’s a Texas Pompeii,” he says, observing how sadly beautiful it all is.
As captured by Markus, Mellencamp, now 60, is looking a little weatherbeaten himself, but in a handsome, vital way -- he shows no sign of going the way of those sad, forgotten downtowns. Still, they’re a big part of what he’s all about. Because, in the end, it really isn’t about him.