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MAN IN THE SAND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Billy Bragg, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Nora Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie
Director:  Kim Hopkins
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Rykovision
Features:  5 Bonus Songs, Coming Attractions
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  March 27, 2001

Film **

A good subject matter doesn't automatically equate to a good documentary.  Man in the Sand is a film with an identity crisis.  On one hand, it tries to be about legendary American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie.  On the other hand, it's about modern English musician Billy Bragg and how he was given the task of putting some of Woody's last pages of scribbled lyrics to music for two CDs titled Mermaid Avenue.  The latter subject is hardly the material for a feature length documentary, therefore the movie tries to disguise itself as a documentary about the former.

It doesn't begin on a right note.  We are listening to Nora Guthrie's narration about her father, and how he died when she was very young and thusly came to know him through his music.  This is fine, except for the fact that we're not just listening to the voiceover.  We're watching her in the studio with headphones on and script in front of her, reading these words into the microphone.  It instantly gives Man in the Sand a rather phony quality; as though it was being manipulated toward greatness instead of finding it.

The next major problem is Billy Bragg himself.  He's a talented enough singer and musician, but lacks the personality to be our on-screen guide for this film.  We follow him as he begins his journey “to discover Woody Guthrie” by going to the hometown that bears his name on the water tower.  Everybody is asked their opinion of Woody.  One individual is enterprising enough to have kept pieces of wood from his demolished childhood home.  Another adamantly proclaims the Communist idealism inherent in “This Land is Your Land” (an accusation that followed Woody his entire life).  These opinions are nothing more than that:  opinions.  They don't bring us closer to the real Woody Guthrie, and as such, come across as tired stretches of wasted film.

The best parts of the movie are the songs, of course.  There are plenty of pieces of Woody himself on the soundtrack, mixed nicely with Bragg's recordings of new music for Woody's final lyrics (mostly scribbled when he knew he was dying of Huntington's Disease).

It's been said the best way to get to know a composer is to listen to his music.  Man in the Sand should have had faith in that simple promise; it could have been much better for doing so.

Video **

This is an unremarkable transfer all around, beginning with the video.  Obviously inexpensively filmed, the images on this disc suffer from problems like softness, graininess, and lack of true color.  There is a mix of film stocks employed, from video to black and white, to what appears to be 16 mm color film (I'm not completely sure).  The resulting composition is muddled.  It's far from unwatchable, but it's not exactly quality, either.

Audio **

The soundtrack is a simply Dolby surround with virtually no discreet use of the rear channel.  The front stage plays out with minimal dynamic range, but no real noise or distortions.  It's an adequate listen, nothing more.

Features **

For those interested in the music this film has to offer, there are 5 bonus songs included on the DVD, as well as a clip of coming attractions.

Summary:

Man in the Sand won't be considered the definitive documentary of Woody Guthrie…the fact that it divides its attention between him and Billy Bragg makes it curiously uneven.  Worst of all, it's just not that interesting.  If you like the music, you might be better off investing in the Mermaid Avenue CDs instead.