“It’s About You” opens with an argument over who the docu is about: John Mellencamp, whose 2009 concert and recording tour are chronicled here, or professional shutterbug/amateur documentarian Kurt Markus. As it happens, both are correct, the film split between Mellencamp’s highly professional music-making and Markus’ hokey homemovie voiceovers. Luckily, the music trumps the indifferently shot concert footage and lends shape to the evocatively lensed recording sessions in iconic locations. Nothing, unfortunately, mitigates Markus’ sincere but trite and awkward narration, which will limit the docu’s appeal to hardcore fans. Pic bowed Jan. 4 in Gotham.
The docu offers little in the way of behind-the-scenes intimacy, though Markus (co-directing with his son, Ian) and his subjects are apparently friends. Mellencamp is filmed in concert and recording sessions, with no impromptu interviews or personal reminiscences addressed to the camera; indeed, Markus and son travel in a separate vehicle. Viewers are afforded nary a glimpse of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, also on the tour, which was held in minor-league baseball stadiums across the South. As the tour progresses, Markus’ concert coverage becomes more focused, though his still-photographs, interspersed at intervals, easily outclass any of his moving images.
But the film’s high points are the recording sessions for Mellencamp’s “No Better Than This” album, produced by T Bone Burnett and held in historic, bare-bones locales between concert dates. In the oldest black church in America, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga. (its floor pierced with air holes for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad), Mellencamp takes time out between cuts to get baptized.
At Memphis’ famous Sun Studios, X’s mark the spots where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash once stood. Here Mellencamp and his band members and session players, on an extraordinary musical roll, effortlessly lay down five tracks in a row, including “Don’t Forget About Me,” “West End” and “Coming Down the Road.” In the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, Mellencamp knocks out “Right Behind Me,” sitting in the room where bluesman Robert Johnson recorded several signature pieces.
The concept for the album, brilliantly realized by Burnett (who sits in on guitar), called for old-fashioned, low-tech, reel-to-reel tape and a single shared vintage mic to capture the direct sound of ’50s-’60s recordings. In keeping with this retro experimentation, Markus shoots the entire film in Super 8, in both color and black-and-white. His impromptu commentary, however, supposedly in keeping with nostalgia for a vanished America, fails to mesh with the overall harmony of the proceedings.