Tuesday, March 29, 2011 , Updated 12:00 a.m., April 7, 2011
DALLAS International Film Festival preview: It’s About You
It’s About You is a father and son’s musical adventure with John Mellencamp on Super 8.
It’s About You (playing at the Angelika Film Center on April 7 and Highland Park Village on April 8 as part of the DALLAS International Film Festival) is a documentary about John Mellencamp, filmed on Super 8, shot and edited by internationally known photographer Kurt Markus and his son Ian. The father and son team followed the singer-songwriter on his 2009 tour of minor league baseball parks with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Along the way, Mellencamp makes several stops to record tracks for his album No Better Than This, produced by T Bone Burnett.
“I knew I would shoot it on Super 8 as soon as John asked me to do the film,” Markus says. “It was the first idea I had. I had done a very low budget music video for John years ago and I shot it on Super 8. He’s never gone in for a high production kind of thing and he likes that kind of look.”
Markus says he did start to have second thoughts once they got on the road and started filming. “There were some early quandaries with syncing sound that gave me pause. I wasn’t convinced we could pull it off. I was only going to use six or seven cartridges for each performance, tops, and I was afraid I would miss something.” But, he says he decided to trust his original idea — that the grainy and intimate quality of Super 8 would fit right in line with Mellencamp’s pared down and somewhat old fashioned musical style. “I was told I could shoot the whole thing on digital and then use software to give it a Super 8 look, but I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. “
It’s About You is Markus’s first film. A self-taught photographer based in Montanna, Markus has had decades of success as a commercial, portrait and art photographer. His work has appeared in virtually every major U.S. publication, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Texas Monthly. Markus met John Mellencamp over 20 years ago during a photo shoot.
Markus’s son Ian is in his first year of film school. “I think a seed was planted,” Markus says about Ian’s experience shooting the documentary. “It was just the two of us. We literally did everything on the film.” About his son, Markus says, “He is one stubborn SOB and I came to really embrace his stubbornness and his sense of ‘no compromise.’ I needed that lesson. He definitely gave that to me.”
It’s About You is not a standard concert film, it also shows a portrait of American life and provides the audience with rare glimpses of the South’s musical and cultural past. While in Savannah, Mellencamp recorded a few songs in First African Baptist Church, the oldest African-American congregation in the United States. During a stop in Memphis, Mellencamp went to Sun Studios. He and the musicians set up using the worn marks on the floor as guides, indicating where Sun’s producers in the 1950s wanted each instrument to be and where the singer should stand. In San Antonio, Mellencamp set up shop in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel, where legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson recorded for the first time. He sits in the same spot where Johnson sat and performed in 1936. Mellencamp and Burnett use only a 55-year-old Amex reel-to-reel tape recorder and one microphone during the session.
“I knew it was going to be tricky going in. John was working for one clean take, getting the music as pure as he could.” So, there was only one chance to create something good, for both the musicians and the film makers. “Because the musicians were going to have just one shot at it too, I didn’t want to be the guy who dropped something. Ian and I wanted to be invisible. The last thing I wanted was to get in the way. “
Markus says there was an “element of wonderment” that took over during the recording sessions. “This was an amazing experience and I valued it for the fact that this wasn’t a music video recreation. I hope that it is communicated in the film. What a gift to have a chance to maybe make a little bit of footage that will outlive the moment.”
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The DALLAS International Film Festival presented by Cadillac runs March 31-April 10.