In both of these quite excellent films, the grace of forgiveness shines through with such clarity, with such genuine appeal, you may actually emerge from the theater a better person. It feels somehow fitting that the films in question are documents of failed musicians.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the eponymous subject of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, has been playing American folk music for 50 years, during which he has spread himself thinly across the contiguous lower 48. The heir apparent to his mentor Woody Guthrie's mantle, Ramblin' Jack never quite managed to gain the recognition his generous talents would seem to guarantee, though in the last few years, he has finally been somewhat vaguely resurrected.
The film, however, wisely uses the story of Ramblin' Jack only as a canvas upon which to explore a more complex, more compelling fable of failure: that of his largely forsaken daughter Aiyana Elliott, the film's director. Neglected from almost the moment of her birth, Aiyana needs only to show us a telegraphing shot of an answering machine playing her father's five-days-too-late birthday message ("I couldn't get to a phone," he lies) for us to get the point.
As Ramblin' Jack spins his wordy tales, Aiyana tries in vain to connect with him; to bring about one of those hackneyed filial showdowns that will result in clarity. In a delicate sequence where Jack tries to find the house in which Aiyana was born as she hounds him to connect with her, we can clearly see the depth of his absence. And then, in a graceful transcendence, she forgives, abandoning her dogged, self- centered pursuit to turn her camera on him as he delivers a stunning rendition of "If I Were a Carpenter." It is a beautiful moment, delicate and fragile, with a spontaneous grace that comes as a gift. Don't miss it.
More delicate still, Jem Cohen and (film editor) Peter Sillen's sublime Benjamin Smoke plays as light as air on leaves. Less a documentary than a biographical poem, Benjamin Smoke focuses on the lush, wafer-thin Benjamin, singer for Smoke, the spectacularly underappreciated Georgia-based band. Sickly and pale, desiccated, endlessly smoking ("Better to smoke here than in the Hereafter," Benjamin says), with a voice like a bird with a slit throat, Benjamin fills the screen like the subject of a Heironymus Bosch painting. His morbid grace is exquisitely complemented by Cohen and Sillen's haunting photography--in fact, the visual beauty of this film puts the watery, transferred-from-video vulgarity of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack to rightful shame.
The transcendent appeal of this film, though, comes not from any single aspect of its construction, but rather from the cumulative effect of just spending time with the inspiring Benjamin. Dirt-poor, marginalized (he is a gay activist in a fairly grotesque South), drug-addicted (mainly speed), and infected with HIV and hepatitis, Benjamin nevertheless manages to wield a pure, uncanny grace at the microphone. Moreover, his remarkable peace and resolve, his humor, and his palpable conviction that his work--his singing and playing--are somehow reward enough against a life that should, by rights, be filled with bitterness, pour forth in this film until, by the end, Benjamin stands as a monument to all he has forgiven.
Cohen and Sillen's amazing document very nearly succeeds at the miracle of capturing a soul on film. Their sensitivity to place (Benjamin's Cabbagetown, Georgia home is seen in all its downtrodden, haggard glory) and their heartfelt, uncluttered portraits of Smoke's performances certainly contribute greatly to the elegance of Benjamin Smoke, but it is the filmmakers' ease with their subject, and their subject's inspiring resonance, that makes this film something very touching, and almost holy.