Before we even talk about the music or the subject of this documentary, in the first ten minutes it illustrates better than any piece of journalism ever could the appalling poverty that some sections of the USA live in. Cabbagetown, a “suburb” of Atlanta, has houses in every state of disrepair, kids “who go to prison young”, parents addicted to pills and glue, no jobs, a derelict factory or two…a state of affairs that any civilised nation ought to be ashamed of, but one which Benjamin seems almost delighted by as he made Cabbagetown his home for most of his life.
Benjamin was a leading member of Atlanta’s alternative music scene, after coming back from New York (he moved there at 18 to sweep the broken glass up at CBGB’s for $20 a day, describing it as the filthiest place ever). He was a member of many bands, lastly Smoke, and his incredibly raspy vocals and unusual subject matter got him some comparisons to Tom Waits. Benjamin was gay, and a combination of being HIV+, long-standing use of amphetamines and other drugs, and contracting Hepatitis C resulted in him dying at 39, in 1999.
The documentary was shot over 10 years by Jem Cohen (an amazing documentary filmmaker) and Peter Sillen, and is in a sort of chronological order, although it’s more just a selection of interviews with Benjamin, peppered with footage of his bands performing and the filthiest sections of Atlanta. His story isn’t particularly sad – which is weird to say for an HIV+ guy who abused drugs most of his adult life – but it’s an interesting portrait of a man who just seemed unable to fit in with the way the rest of society operate. Most of us who feel that the dominant culture isn’t ours can sort of manage, rebelling in little ways, but people like Benjamin just couldn’t. I think he’d have been an interesting guy to know. It’s sad that most of the interviews with him, he seems to be high (when, in the “bonus features”, he’s seen extremely lucid and sober at least a few times).
A word about how it looks in a minute, but “Benjamin Smoke” is structured beautifully. His death is announced on screen at the hour mark, which comes after he achieved his dream of performing with Patti Smith, who was so inspired by Smoke’s music that she wrote a song of her own about him. Smith then appears in the last segment, reading the song she wrote and talking about Smoke and her interaction with Benjamin. It’s a wonderful coda.
The music’s great too! I’m sad I never heard Smoke while Benjamin was still alive, but his band is a wonderful mix of drone and Americana, very much like early Patti Smith but pushed to a weird extreme. I’m still figuring out the lyrics. Watching this movie, though, is like watching a random selection of clips from a late 80s edition of “120 Minutes” – that grainy black and white footage of roads and ugly houses, slowed down footage of band performances, poorly lit static shots of Benjamin being interviewed. Not to say it’s bad, but it feels like “indie music film by the numbers”. I don’t know.
If you’ve heard of “Benjamin Smoke”, it’s down to lists of music documentaries you really should watch, and I’d definitely agree with that. Don’t judge it based on the success of its subject, because who cares? Judge it based on how interesting the subject was, and if you see it that way this is an absolute triumph of a documentary.
Rating: thumbs up