January 16, 2001 -- The story of Benjamin (born Robert Dickerson) a noted singer-songwriter who had an alternate lifestyle and created alternate music, is sometimes described as a tragedy. It is portrayed as sad in the movie "Benjamin Smoke," but it is clearly no tragedy. A tragedy is when a child gets killed by chance. A man who drinks, chain smokes, takes barbiturates and speed and otherwise steers a course to do himself in over a period of 39 years and then dies, is not a tragic figure, or even an interesting one.
The saving graces of the movie are the music and the fact that Benjamin does not feel sorry for himself. He makes no excuses, in fact, he says he wouldn't have it any other way. He's proud of himself and the choices he's made. He likes the substances he abuses and he has no regrets. He said, "I like myself, except for one and a half years. It's amazing how many people don't like themselves." The self-professed drag queen discovered music not all that early in life after hearing a Patti Smith song. Don't be put off by the first jam session you see Smoke perform in the movie. The off key squalling and caterwauling bears little resemblance to the music in the rest of the film. The music is heartfelt and soulful, encompassing enormous sadness. Benjamin's ragged growl of a voice is reminiscent of Tom Waits, whose music, coincidentally, was featured in the great film "Smoke."
In contrast to his songs, which have clarity, Benjamin's rambling, half-drugged, slurred interviews are hard to follow. He likes to play with words. At one point he makes a play on words about locks and musical instruments in a band being in the same key. We see pictures of Benjamin as a child, with his beautiful, angelic face. Then we see him near death, gaunt, haggard, sickly, angular, a near skeleton of a man, ravaged by AIDS and hepatitis C. He didn't look as bad as Keith Richards does, but he was heading in that direction.
The film uses a number of still photos by Michael Ackerman. The photos show us Cabbage Town, an isolated Atlanta neighborhood that became home to Benjamin in his later years, as well as many others in the underground Atlanta culture. Writers, directors and cinematographers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen use black and white and color photography to explore the music and environment of Smoke. There are interviews with the band members and some session and concert footage. There's also a lot of footage of Cabbage Town and its people.
So what does this all mean? It seems to me when you make a film with the putative purpose of introducing the viewer to someone, then that someone ought to be interesting. Benjamin doesn't seem very interesting, at least he didn't have very much to say in the film that sounded interesting. I liked the songs, but didn't see much of connection between what Benjamin said and what he sang. He did say that it didn't matter what his idea of the meaning of a song is, what is important, is what the song means to the listener. He's not the only songwriter to say that, but it seems a bit of a cop-out. As the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, drug-taking musician, he's not out of the ordinary. In fact, he is a cliché.
I hope this movie wasn't made just to sell some cd's. Benjamin did record some cd's with Smoke and with his previous band the Opal Foxx Quartet (Benjamin appeared on stage in drag as "Miss Opal Fox"). Those cd's have conveniently been reissued in time for this film (links to MP3 tracks and cd's are below). As I watched this film, I couldn't figure out why Benjamin was the subject of this film, until he put on his dress. "There you go," I thought to myself. You would think a guy who is a drag queen alternative musician would be interesting. It ain't necessarily so. Cabbage Town was interesting, however. Some of the still photography and the cinematography was stunning. I liked this old guy in a white suit yammering incoherently into a megaphone while standing on a sidewalk. We don't have enough of those kind of people where I live. I liked the glowing neon lights advertising car parts through a chain-link fence. I liked the little kid giving the cameraman the finger. I liked the industrial decay on a grand scale. Interesting stuff. This film rates a C.
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