SMOKE a film by Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen
music by Smoke
In his late teens, Robert Dickerson took a new name, just one: Benjamin. If I say he was a speed freak, a drag queen, a boy who got into music after hearing Patti Smith's Horses, you might think you've been to this movie before, but you'd be wrong.
Benjamin Smoke is a film made by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. Shot over a decade, the last of Benjamin's life, it is (Cohen says) "the story of a boy growing up in the rural South who sensed his own difference, a 'queerness' that isn't just about gender." Beautifully assembled, combining 16mm, Super 8, video, and photographs, it is a portrait of Benjamin, but also of his band, Smoke, and the neighborhood much of the action springs from, Atlanta's Cabbagetown.
Both Cohen and Sillen have worked with musicians before. A short list would include Sillen's Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chestnutt, Cohen's R.E.M. videos and his documentary about Fugazi, Instrument (included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial). Each of the filmmakers was introduced to Benjamin by Michael Stipe, of R.E.M.
Stipe was a fan of Atlanta's infamous Opal Foxx Quartet, but after he brought them into the studio to cut a demo, he couldn't interest music company execs in the material. (The results of those sessions and others were eventually released as The Love That Won't Shut Up.) The singer and central figure of that group was Benjamin, of course, "in the guise of Miss Opal Foxx, a scrawny little powerhouse in a sundress "
Smoke was born out of Opal Foxx, mainly for the purpose of writing original songs, something that had proved challenging in a "quartet" of a dozen or so performers. Smoke is Brian Halloran on cello, Coleman Lewis on electric guitar, Tim Campion on drums, Bill Taft on cornet and banjo, and Benjamin on words: sung, spoken, written by him, and sometimes borrowed from others. The sound is unvarnished. Veering, urgent, unrushed. Ghostly, if ghostly could be warm. A postmodern music, from the Old Country (wherever that place is we're really from). The songs are engaging, pissed-off, humorous, broken open, un-tragic. Somebody called Smoke's stuff "chamber country blues," and that gets close.
Because of my own history with drugs and drug users, I sometimes found it hard to look at Benjamin when he was really stoned. Somebody else might have trouble watching a sick, emaciated man struggle into his vintage blue taffeta dress. But a surprising aspect of Benjamin Smoke is that the level of trust between the filmmakers and the people being filmed allows the viewer to relax. You don't feel that anyone is being manipulated. There's an openness -- candor and kindness.
Though it has gotten great reviews from all the important publications, Benjamin Smoke is not the kind of movie that tends to be widely distributed. It's been shown at film festivals throughout the country this year, and on the Sundance channel. Look for it.
And definitely check out the music of Smoke. Hear clips from the CD used in the film on the Listen page.
You can read reviews and buy the CDs here.
Visit benjaminrememberd.com to learn more about Benjamin and Smoke.