By S.T. VanAirsdale
Not having attended Sundance, Slamdance, Berlin or SXSW this year, I have less of an idea than usual of what's out there setting the pace in new nonfiction film. But I know what I like, and I can say without reservation that Song Sung Blue -- which claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes among feature docs two months ago at Slamdance (and which screens tonight as part of IFC Center's Best of Slamdance program) -- is the best documentary I've seen in 2008.
Tracing the path of Milwaukee-based Neil Diamond tribute act Lightning and Thunder from from rags to sequin-embroidered rags to tatters back to rags, director Greg Kohs's feature debut blends pathos, discomfort and drama in narrative loops and twists that defy much description here -- a cop-out in most regards, to be sure, but not with a story so gripping and bizarrely... finite. Even Kohs, who spoke with The Reeler last weekend from his base outside Philadelphia, couldn't anticipate what was coming throughout the eight years he trailed the husband-and-wife cover combo. "I knew I needed an ending, and I knew that for a long time -- like for three years," he said, noting as many as three possible conclusions threading the last act of the film. " 'What the hell is my ending? I have to finish this, because I can't keep going forever.' "
That's the type of subject he had fallen in love with, though, a two-headed animal (with two loud children) that would barely sit still long enough to be embraced. Lightning (née Mike Sardina) and Thunder (née Claire Sardina) met in a band audition in 1987 and were married at the 1994 Wisconsin State Fair, where audiences had long taken to taken to their numbers paying homage to Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline. A year later, in front of 30,000 people at Milwaukee's Summerfest, they performed Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans" alongside Eddie Vedder. Their local following grew to a point that when a wayward motorist severed Thunder's leg in a freak accident outside her South Milwaukee bungalow in 1999, it led the city's evening newscasts.
Kohs had casually known the pair for several years prior, having once sprinted across the State Fairgrounds for a chance to see what he thought was Neil Diamond after hearing Lightning's voice over a loudspeaker. He only approached them as a director after the accident. "I wanted to help them," he told me. "I had to figure out what my objective was after my first couple of visits because I was kind of a fan, a friend and a filmmaker. Wearing those three hats wasn't going to make for a very good film. I wasn't going to be able to tell their story accurately and honestly. So I told them that to be the best friend I could be and to help them the best I could, I'd use the one skill set I had that hopefully could help, and that was being a filmmaker."
An Emmy-winning veteran of NFL Films, Kohs quickly adapted to the tight confines and fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing the Sardinas and their teenage children by Thunder's first marriage, Dana and Rachel. The kids never quite seem to get over the presence of the camera, mobilizing melodrama in sharp contrast to Lightning and Thunder's haunting confessional interludes or the thinly veiled disapprovals of Thunder's elderly mother. For the couple, however, denial is external, best symbolized by day jobs or any diversion keeping them from a comeback. It's a harrowing dynamic for viewers (even moreso, one presumes, for Kohs), whose sympathy wavers after an hour invested in the duo's dream.
But having borrowed at least one of Lightning's philosophies from his and Thunder's touring days -- "We'll get there a lot faster by going slower," he once told her en route to a gig -- Kohs didn't blink. And indeed, the closer he looked, a rebound seemed imminent. And just as his story took on a life of its own, so I'll defer to its leisure and power. You really must see Song Sung Blue to believe it. I was moved, ecstatic and thoroughly exhausted.
The epilogue is even crazier, with Kohs delaying his Slamdance premiere several days while waiting for Neil Diamond himself to clear music rights for the film. Kohs's festival diary is a compulsively readable account of his own peaks and troughs, with no less than Eddie Vedder returning for an encore on his and his subjects' behalf. "In the end, the only way I was going to get the music I wanted to use in the film approved was for Neil Diamond himself to see the film," Kohs said. "To look at this story on paper and see pictures or even a trailer -- it would never get approved. Without seeing the whole thing, they won't know what it's about. So I took the risk and just made the film."
Diamond eventually reached Kohs in Park City to give his personal blessing and praise. He had his festival rights; distribution rights would come later, if and when buyers express interest the film. Kohs said exactly one distributor saw the film in Slamdance; he expects at least some industry turnout tonight in New York, with additional opportunities forthcoming at Hot Docs, Sarasota, Philadelphia and Boston. "I don't know if I'm doing it right or not," he said. "I'm just doing it how it feels right. I haven't been hawking it a lot. I haven't sent it to anyone; I just want them to see it in the theaters." Faster via slower, in other words. I'm with him to a point, primarily hoping that Song Sung Blue winds up in front of audiences --where it really belongs -- sooner than later.
Posted at March 25, 2008 8:55 AM
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