Latter-day folk icon Steve Earle gets loose but engaging portrait-of-the-artist treatment in “Just an American Boy,” latest effort by music film vet (going back to seminal 1976 punk docu “Blank Generation”) and occasional feature director Amos Poe. Earle’s loyal — albeit never massive — audience will best be reached through home formats, though pic has been playing limited urban theatrical dates in U.S. since November.
Title comes from a lyric in “John Walker’s Blues,” a recent song written and sung by Earle that notoriously dared to adopt the imagined voice of the American youth from Marin County who joined the Taliban forces. Failing to grasp the difference between artistic empathy and ideological sympathy, pundits screamed patriotic bloody murder, giving Earle more publicity than he had received throughout his entire prior 20-year career.
Like his hero Woody Guthrie (a flattering comparison is drawn here by the late troubadour’s daughter), Earle is indeed on the left side of the political spectrum. He’s been a passionate capital punishment opponent; has penned memorable tunes about injustice abroad (“Jerusalem”) and at home (“America v.6.0”); plays endless benefits, as well as prison gigs that were a condition of his own parole for cocaine and heroin possession charges some reckless years back. His American idealism is based on fervent belief in the original precepts of the Constitution. With parts of that document arguably under high-end assault of late, he sees no contradiction in warning post-9/11 listeners “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s unpatriotic to question any damn thing.”
Yet far from being a better polemicist than artist — like too many well-intentioned neuvo-Woodys throughout the rock era — Steve Earle has always been notable first and foremost as a songwriter, a fine musical storyteller in particular. His agreeably raspy voice, capable of being quite pretty when called for, remains grounded and intimate through every lyrical scenario and sound. Latter include generous helpings of traditional folk and bluegrass, stomping rock and blues, not to mention collaborations with a wide range of other musicians.
Pic sports a hefty sampler of tunes performed in concert across the nation, in rehearsal and the studio. Physically unprepossessing star — stout, bearded, balding, middle-aged now — is shown doing radio interviews, TV appearances (joking backstage with Conan O’Brien), wrestling with his first penned stage play (“Karla,” about executed Texan murderess Karla Faye Tucker), accepting a Human Rights award, acting on HBO series “The Wire,” discussing early artistic inspirations (beatnik authors, “In Cold Blood”), et al. He’s more pleasant and unpretentious company than anyone with so many ex-wives, record labels and kicked addictions on his resume by rights ought to be.
Though son Justin (also a musician) appears here, the subject’s nonworking life and career backpages are pretty much left for another docu to cover, with focus strictly on the present tense of entwined artmaking and activism.
Initially appearing somewhat structureless, by the end “Boy” manages a sense of satisfying encompassment. Tech aspects are well handled.