“My mother spent 15 years living in Mexico practicing to be a shaman with the Huichole Indians,” says first-time filmmaker Aiyana Elliott. “We‘ve done some shooting on that. I locked it in the back of my closet, I want to keep it there for a little while until I’ve recovered from this film. Where my dad kind of became a cowboy, my mom kind of became an Indian. It‘s a weird legacy.”
“My dad” is legendary folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, whom Jack Kerouac once dubbed “Jack Elliott, the Singing Cowboy,” and who is casting a wary eye over the proceedings when the talk turns to one of his four ex-wives. And “this film” is The Ballad of Ramblin‘ Jack, by turns a credible tour through the archival record of an American icon and a daughter’s poignant attempts to make sense of a father‘s messy life.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is the missing link in a straight line that runs from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Patti Smith to Michael Stipe to your name here. He was born Elliott Adnopoz in Brooklyn, New York, in 1931, the son of a Jewish doctor, and has done everything he could since then to obliterate that brief biography. He possessed an almost divine calling to become a bona-fide cowboy; he ran away to join the rodeo at 15, and by 20 had sought out Woody Guthrie in nearby Coney Island. Guthrie, 20 years his senior and in the embryonic stages of the neurological disorder that would destroy him, welcomed a protege and traveling companion who could carry on his legacy, and together they rambled cross-country for much of the early ‘50s.
When Jack returned to New York in 1961 after six years spent playing in England, where his accomplished flat-picking guitar style influenced everyone from Keith Richards to Eric Clapton to Paul McCartney, he found his life’s work manifested in a virtual standing army of folk aficionados who had quietly amassed during his self-imposed exile. Among these was protege-in-waiting Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, 10 years his junior and eager to appropriate his look, delivery and sense of humor wholesale.
By contrast, Aiyana Elliott was born in 1968 to inveterate hippies. Having missed the great American folk revival, she spent most of age 6 on the Rolling Thunder Review tour, mixing with the Dylan brood and following someone else‘s dream. As is made amply clear in her film, even after her parents divorced and she went to live with her mother and stepfather, a childhood’s worth of missed birthdays, false promises, paternal irresponsibility and emotional unavailability must have been no picnic. “Busking, from the Spanish buscar, which means ‘to look for or search,’” is how Jack eloquently explains his itinerant minstrel ways, but it must be evident even to him by now that his compulsive rambling had less to do with searching than it did with flight.
Ramblin‘ Jack in person is every bit as adept at avoiding personal revelations as he is in the film, much to his daughter’s chagrin. Together, they have a kind of nightclub act they perform, which seems less shtick than a kind of mutual exasperation. When Jack launches into one of his peripatetic reminiscences — one long, talking blues that veers from the Bob Dylan of Japan, to the real Bob Dylan and an antique BMW, to a childhood friend who came back from the Navy with a tan motorcycle, to the Swedish names for the masts on a seven-masted schooner — it‘s all Aiyana can do not to roll her eyes. (In the movie, Kris Kristofferson says, “Before I knew Ramblin’ Jack I thought they called him that because of his travels. But it‘s because of the way he talks.”) And when her natural interviewer’s tendency makes her try and steer the conversation in a forthright manner, Jack meets her efforts with wily stubbornness.
Yet Aiyana has barely left the table and Jack is practically gushing with paternal pride. “I just can‘t believe she’s my daughter,” he volunteers. “She‘s so fantastic. I just think she’s very talented. I really didn‘t have much to do with it, but I feel proud anyway.”
If the making of the film didn’t provide the on-camera breakthrough the Elliott family has been respectively seeking or dreading, then these last 30 days on the road together as part of a cross-country promotional tour seem to have at least got a wedge in the door. “I‘ve never worked this hard in my life,” Jack says, contemplating his newfound responsibility, “and I’ll certainly never do it again. There‘s no respect for hours. As a musician, I work at night and sleep in the daytime. But as a movie star, I’m working day and night.”
“It‘s like I was receiving this legacy,” adds Aiyana, describing the making of her film, though inadvertently reiterating the Elliott family line. “But the thing that’s been weird for me has been the extent to which I would never even really have known about it had I not sought it out or claimed it. I think that a lot of the best things life has to offer aren‘t going to come find you.”
For a review of The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, turn to Film calendar.