The second in documaker Daniel Kraus’ ambitious “Work America” series, “Musician” is a precise and insightful cinema verite study of Ken Vandermark, a Chicago-based musician who doggedly makes a living by performing atonal improvisational jazz. Pic offers an unglamorized portrait of the artist as a purposeful drudge, focusing on Vandermark as he divides his time between menial but necessary tasks — conducting rehearsals, negotiating fees, deciding the color scheme of promotional flyers — and savoring magical moments of live performance before receptive audiences. Pic could score as a pubcast and homevid product.
Pic might have been even more effective had Kraus more clearly established Vandermark’s relatively substantial cachet — he has more than 100 recordings and a 1999 MacArthur “genius grant” to his credit — as a contrast to his working-stiff approach to spending better than eight months a year on the road. (While he trudges down a motel stairwell, his fleeting reference to “This Is Spinal Tap” sounds like the jest of a man who is laughing, but not smiling.) Even so, Vandermark comes off very ingratiating, and the pic as a whole is well-crafted and compelling.