Despite glossy execution and its subject’s undeniable charisma, “Lemon,” the story of “three-time felon, onetime Tony winner” Lemon Andersen, is a better film accidentally than it is on purpose. Intended as a tale of creative triumph, this stylishly rendered and well-edited docu becomes an inadvertent examination of ambition, betrayal and the manufacturing of an artistic brand. Overlong at 88 minutes but not as probing as it could have been, the pic would benefit from trims in length and language that would make it friendlier to TV, which is where it will ultimately get its best exposure.
Having gained his initial renown as a cast member of “Russell Simmons Presents Def Comedy Jam,” which won a 2003 Tony award for special theatrical event, Andersen found fame and fortune to be fleeting. He bemoans having had to move wife Marilyn and their kids into the kind of Brooklyn housing project where he grew up, which provides most of the material for his spoken-word performances. His process of refining that material into a show called “County of Kings,” and its subsequent arc from rehearsal through crisis and contention, provides the spine of the documentary, stylishly captured by d.p. Matthew Akers’ camera but not dealt with adequately by helmers Laura Brownson and Beth Levison.
“Don’t pity me,” Andersen says at one point. But what is his work, if not a plea for sympathy? “County of Kings” is a virtual celebration of the crime and poverty its author experienced as a Puerto Rican youth in a Brooklyn slum; the draw of his show is, like it or not, the otherness of its content, at least for audiences at New York’s Public Theater, which becomes something of a battlefield over the picture’s course. Having spent two years developing “County of Kings” under the auspices of the Manhattan-based American Place Theater, Lemon gets an offer of a two-week run from the prestigious Public Theater (which makes for some confusion, as auds for “County of Kings” are shown entering the Public before that theater seems to be involved). The proviso: The Public Theater gets perpetual rights to the show. Andersen promptly throws the American Place Theater under the bus, and it’s hard to sympathize with that.
On the other hand, what other choice does he have? For all Andersen knows, the penurious Public offer may be the very ticket he needs to attain wide exposure and some kind of financial security for his family. But “Lemon” rubs up against these questions of artistic compromise and personal ethics without really confronting them. When the Public declines to pick up “County of Kings” and the APT’s David Kener basically tells the not-quite-contrite Andersen to get lost, there’s an opportunity for Levison and Brownson to mine some astringent insights. That opportunity is ignored.
Lemon the poet takes a back seat to Lemon the actor, Lemon the hip-hop artist (despite his denunciation of rap music) and Lemon the therapy patient, even if the therapy is being self-administered. Of these various personas, the filmmakers seem least inclined to address Lemon the hustler, being satisfied, like their subject, to play on viewers’ sympathies.
During his performances, the question arises of what exactly Andersen’s art has to do with an artistic expression/manipulation of language. More crucial to his effectiveness onstage are his hyperbolic physical gestures, his personal attractiveness and the rhythmic flurry of his words, which, while often unintelligible, communicate a primal intensity and emotion. Eminem and Tupac Shakur seem likelier influences than William Blake or Amiri Baraka; more often, what one hears from Lemon is what one would get at a very eloquent 12-step meeting.
Production values are tops, notably the work of Akers and, with the exception of that Public Theater confusion, editors Tom Patterson and Charles Olivier.