By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
AT THE CENTER OF HIS OWN HAGIOGRAPHIC documentary, Pleasure and Pain, co-directed by Sam Lee and music photographer Danny Clinch, is Ben Harper, whose relationship to music, race and representation -- and how they float around one another -- takes a back seat to the cinematic fellatio bestowed upon the singer-songwriter-musician. Those already enmeshed in the cult of Harper will be thrilled by this behind-the-scenes, on-the-road glimpse at their hero. Others may welcome exposure to his music but find the film -- and Harper -- a bit tedious.
As he makes it clear, repeatedly, that he's not interested in labels or being boxed in -- that he wants to transcend the reflex toward categorization that most folk exercise when discussing music -- a chorus of fans, band members and managers swoons for the camera: Ben doesn't recognize genre, he's too talented to limit himself that way; he's a pure artist; he's a throwback to the golden days of popular music; he doesn't want to be limited. Harper himself is cool, calm and mostly genial throughout, except for a fantastic sequence that has him eviscerating hackneyed music reporters, almost reducing one of them to tears. That verbal bloodbath is a performance, of course, but it's a performance whose testy shading comes as a relief from the otherwise fawning portrait.
Harper has an amazing voice, one that echoes without cheap mimicry the various influences that he's pulled together into his aesthetic arsenal -- Dylan, Marley, Richie Havens and a host of salty bluesmen. He can veer from pure falsetto to a wizened, affecting croon with fluttery ease. Even more impressively, he's a master guitarist whose skills dwarf those of his flashier label-mate Lenny Kravitz. Both Harper's musicianship and his singing shine most brightly in the film during a moving concert duet with his mother.
Still, it's Harper's determination to define himself while sidestepping cliché that dominates the film. He says forcefully, "I don't wanna have to be a protest singer, I don't wanna have to be a crooner, I don't wanna have to be a rocker . . . I'm not an activist, I'm not a role model." The thing is, he is all of the above. Rather than have him define himself through a process of denial, it would have been more interesting for his directors to have examined and discussed those roles in relation to one another (or, better yet, have a non-sycophantic speaker do so), thereby arriving at wholeness through synthesis or contrast rather than by way of sheer negation. Instead, this man, whose music can be so beautifully transcendent, in striving to prove how unique and idiosyncratic he is, slips rather easily into participating in a by-the-numbers rock-star documentary, flattening out his persona and surprising us with how familiar a figure he is after all.
STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWNDirected by PAUL JUSTMAN | Written by ALLAN SLUTSKY; narration by WALTER DALLAS and NTOZAKE SHANGE | Produced by SANDY PASSMAN, SLUTSKY and JUSTMAN | Released by Artisan | At Magic Johnson Theaters, Regent Showcase, Laemmle's Playhouse 7
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