"The most important thing to remember is, no matter what anyone tells you, it is never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question anything in a democracy."—Steve Earle
Steve Earle has never really been a member of the Establishment, either socially or professionally. From the beginning of his career as a Nashville songwriter to his recent stint as the US government poster boy for dissident anti-patriotism, he has carried a veritable cargo of emotional baggage along with his widely discordant political views to add fuel to an already raging mental inferno. At the peak of his pitfalls, he landed in jail for heroin addiction and it appeared that his once promising outlaw country image had finally consumed him. But an amazing thing happened on the way to rehabilitation. Earle discovered his conscience and his desire to protest. Evoking such old school musical demonstrators as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, he turned his muse inward, moving the twang away from the standard tears and beers good old boy boot stomp and more towards the morally reprehensible things he sees about American ideals. At 49, he is now on the cusp of a whole new artistic life. A staunch opponent of the death penalty, Earle has channeled his energies not only into musical expressions of his position, but playwriting and social work. Goaded on by famed music critic Danny Goldberg, his 2002 album Jerusalem saw a more politically minded Earle invoking some of the pop culture media demons that have become sacrilegious to speak of in our Bush-era Big Brother, follow-the-leader social order. This direct challenge to the normative has resulted in a heap of hurting hurled at Earle, but the resilient radical keeps right on fighting. He does it out of love for his fellow man and his country. After all, he is Just an American Boy.
If you are a fan of Steve Earle, if you love his music and find his song stories about the disenfranchised fascinating and empowering, then there is no need to sell you on this documentary directed by Amos Poe (The Blank Generation, Alphabet City). You'll immediately enjoy it and find Just an American Boy insightful and instigating. But if Earle is just a face to you, a Mellencamp/Springstein wannabe posing as a CNN/Fox News nuisance insisting that his pointed attacks at the status quo are signs of a democratic birthright, you may balk at all of the heavy-handed back-slapping going on. Most everyone else will probably find themselves in the middle, not offered enough musical variation to make up their mind about his songwriting, while seeing so little of his political side that it's hard to get a handle on what all the hoopla is about. Indeed, the song that turned Earle from a CMT stalwart to country and western persona non grata is barely discussed here. "John Walker's Blues," a simple tune presented from the pro-Taliban American "traitor" teen's point of view is nothing more than a variation on a theme, no more powder-kegged or incendiary than "Knee Deep in the Big Muddy" or "This Land is Your Land." The controversy stems more from the perception of the message, not the musical pronouncement itself. Earle became the whipping boy for all those warmongering minions who thought that the USA's post 9/11 unilateral attack on the rest of the world (and, indirectly, Islam in general) was a moral imperative. Whether America was right in its might is an issue for another day. But what is clear from the first 20 minutes of Just an American Boy is that when a scapegoat bandwagon is created, everyone from pundits to ex-Presidents are more than happy to leap onto the back and stick their foolish footpads in their mouth.
While riding around Nashville in a car, Earle warns his driver (and the film crew) that "you don't want to be caught speeding (here) with (him) in the vehicle, an ex-con death penalty abolitionist." Such a haunting phrase is held for a moment, and it is here when Just an American Boy appears to finally be ready to leap off the screen, into our ethos, and champion true change in how we view freedom of speech and personal advocacy. But before it can, we are off to another concert sequence. Instead of exploring the meaning and the message behind the ominous remark, it's better to just document the rock and roll. Just an American Boy does a lot of this. It's like listening to an easily distracted child tell you a super serious story. Every so often as windows of perception begin to open up about Earle, his blacklisting, his past problems with drugs, and his close connection to the old protest movement of the 1950s and 60s, director Poe slams the sash of his fact film and asks you to pay attention to the music, dammit. Earle is a great guitarist and an even better lyricist. But his songs can underwhelm when they should actually move you to emotional, ethical epiphanies. Maybe it's the way Poe presents them, almost always cutting off the climax of a verse or cheating a chorus to move on to another behind-the-scenes peek at Earle's everyday existence. And even then, these glimpses are less than insightful. Offered up like artifacts from a more fleshed-out film biography (See Steve eat! See Steve scream! See Steve goof off!), the point of much of what is going on is missed. Steve Earle's life was completely turned upside down several times in his life. But much of that turmoil is left for inference by this film.
Indeed, the gonzo, non-interview style of Just an American Boy also causes it to become less than successful. Earle does occasionally address the camera, providing sanguine snippets, but more times than not the tidbits about his life, his loves, and his leanings are left to eavesdropping and overheard scraps of conversations. We learn a great deal, but not enough and definitely not regarding certain areas. After watching this entire movie, one can't help but think back to that car ride and the gloomy warning Earle offered. That is the true meat of Just an American Boy, the real story of Steve Earle that the title hints at. His music is certainly remarkable and his concert skills unquestioned (especially when he passionately plays with others at a bluegrass festival), but as a musician, this is all a given. Earle has not been in the business 20 some years because he is a hack. But the manner in which the sounds submerge the political points so desperate to get out here is what makes the movie uneven. We want more of the charges, the allegations, and the reactions. We wish to see people pissing themselves over a simple three-chord song. Earle is a champion for what he does outside pop culture as much as for what he contributes to it. Perhaps even more so. But this other existence outside of the stage is never given the gravitas it deserves. And all of this leaves Just an American Boy feeling half finished. It's hard to imagine that Earle wanted this much focus placed solely on his musicianship. His message was and is more important than that.
Artemis Records' DVD release of this interesting documentary film (as a companion piece to a live album of the same name) is a bit of a disappointment as well. While the movie looks and sounds fantastic, there is nothing else here to foster the agenda. All we have is a music video for the title song to the Jerusalem album, and even that has the stink of sell-out, being far too multicultural and PC-friendly to match Earle's more challenging lyrics. A commentary from the musician himself would have been nice, as would a track featuring the director. Maybe Poe could have addressed some of the strange artist choices he made. But from a basic DVD foundation, this is a fantastic visual and aural feast. The transfer is stunning, making great use of all the film and video mediums Poe employed to get his look right. But the transfer is non-anamorphic and therefore those with 16x9 setups will fell the sting of disappointment. Still, this letterboxed presentation is crystal clear and vibrant.
Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo is magnificent, allowing the dialogue to ring true and the concert footage to roar with power…maybe too much power. The scenes on stage are mixed up very high, meaning that you can potentially be blasted out of your seat when a song starts after a scene of Earle in quiet contemplation. It may take a little volume adjusting, but that is the only downside to the sonic experience here. As it stands, Earle is today probably best known more as a radical than as a rocker. One senses he strives to be accountable for both his music and his good works. But Just an American Boy cheats an audience looking for ethics and philosophy. It just can't help but oversell the sound while avoiding the far more interesting fury within this man's troubled, talented soul.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artemis Records
• Music Video for the Song "Jersusalem"
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