The intimate, unexpurgated story of the “queer Southern blues” that emanated from an Atlanta-reared, HIV-positive, drag-queen addict and his short-lived band , “Benjamin Smoke” reps a distinctive, successful collaboration between media artist Jem Cohen, who made the 1999 Fugazi profile “Instrument,” and documaker Peter Sillen, whose 1994 portrait of singer Vic Chestnutt typifies his fascination with uncompromising fringe artists. Forceful, eccentric item will play theatrically wherever regional alternative American music is appreciated, with strong tube and vid life to follow.
Born Robert Dickerson in 1960 and from all evidence a cute little kid, Benjamin reinvented himself in a series of bands based in the hardscrabble Cabbagetown section of Atlanta, beginning with punk outfit Freedom Puff, then as avant-queer front man of Opal Foxx Quartet. Smoke was formed shortly thereafter, with an intense, mournful and raw sound achieved through the unusual introduction of banjo, cello and trumpet into more traditional rock instrumentation.
Looking, sounding and apparently living like a libertine yet reclusive mix of Lou Reed, David Johansen and Patti Smith, Benjamin was brought to Cohen’s attention by R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe in 1989 and was sporadically filmed by helmer from 1990 onward. Profiled in a series of bracingly unguarded conversations in 1997, Benjamin is a cheerfully self-deprecating and clear-eyed raconteur and songwriter, despite his obvious physical dissolution (neither the origin of his AIDS nor the source of his one-word moniker is revealed).
“My weariness was nothing compared to his … I was quite taken,” says Smith, for whom Smoke opened just prior to Benjamin’s death and who contributes a poem and story late in the film.
Disease claimed the singer in early 1999, the day after his 39th birthday. Pic has a strong subtext of gentrification and loss, with singer’s final days played out against the backdrop of Cabbagetown’s go-carts giving way to condos. Tech credits are stylized yet firmly focused, with a collage approach incorporating various film and video stocks. Filmmakers favor nonlinear storytelling, a fitting visual metaphor for a defiantly unorthodox life.