Amos Poe, Steve Earle: Just an American Boy
Back in early 2002, after American politics took a hard nationalist turn, Steve Earle’s producers at Artemis Records challenged him to write a political album. Earle’s politics have always skewed further leftward than his Nashville singer-songwriter would imply, making him a polarizing figure in country music. But when dared to make an explicitly political album, he found himself in a surprisingly optimistic place. The product, Jerusalem, starts bleak, but maps a journey back to hope.
Earle invited punk filmmaker Amos Poe to follow his subsequent tour. Having already directed Earle’s “Transcendental Blues” video, the two had a level of creative trust that permitted The product, a fly-on-the-wall documentary reminiscent of DA Pennebaker’s classic Don't Look Back, shows Earle on a massive creative kick, mixing live performances and in-studio interviews with moments of candid insight. It shows Earle fighting the system, but it also shows his deep, fundamentally traditional Texas heart.
The documentary basically follows the trajectory of Earle’s album, without being yoked to it. Like the album, Poe begins with Earle performing “Ashes to Ashes,” Jerusalem’s opening track. A dark, backbeat-driven take on social Darwinism, it depicts history’s winners reveling in a social structure that is simultaneously both godless and foreordained, and whose eventual collapse provides the world justice, while denying it meaning. Earle clearly intends listeners to realize this describes an imminently collapsing edifice.
In interviews, Earle describes the thought processes bringing Jerusalem together. He describes growing up politically engaged and progressive in a Texas already hewn to increasingly right-wing principles. He recounts his rapid run up Nashville’s singer-songwriter hierarchy in the middle 1980s, a run harshly interrupted by an arrest for drug and gun charges. This arrest transformed his previously nascent political leanings, mainly background noise from childhood, into commitment to a whole host of social reform movements.
Earle growls into the microphone at one point: y’know that saying about just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t watching you? Well, he reminds a stadium full of fans, paranoia is an irrational, unfounded fear of being watched. And while the system might not be watching you, they’re certainly watching me. Earle possesses a well-honed fear of social hierarchies, one earned by hard time, but also probably tweaked by his experience with hard drugs.
Between these political diatribes, Earle wedges in plenty of time for music. This includes not only his politically oriented New-Millennium recordings, like “John Walker’s Blues” or “Christmas in Washington,” but also classics like “Guitar Town” and “Copperhead Road.” Earle proves himself a master performer, throwing himself wholly into his songs, hair lank with sweat as he pushes himself to give the audience the concert they deserve. He dials it up or down with graceful ease.
>As filmmaker, Poe possibly suffers from excessive intimacy with his subject. His camera lingers much closer to Earle than Bob Dylan ever let DA Pennebaker get, sometimes so close that, in one telling moment, Earle has to adjust his microphone during a live radio interview to accommodate both in his personal space. Where Pennebaker paints Dylan as a dynamic but angry, sometimes untrustworthy, character, Poe’s treatment is undisguisedly heroic. It takes some getting used to.
Some critics dislike Poe’s sludgy, handheld camera work. We accept such limitations with Pennebaker, who shot directly to film with technology from around 1965, but Poe, working with broadcast-quality video, nevertheless gets lost in crowded, low-angle, poorly lit shots. Yet I find myself willing to accept this, because it resembles the atmosphere you’d get in a jostling performance venue. This isn’t a controlled Hollywood production. Poe drops us into a performing musician’s real, unprettified life.
Like the album, this movie ends with Earle’s song “Jerusalem.” Rather than a stage performance, Poe directs a serious video, one which combines new and found footage to embody Earle’s transition to hope. This video also makes explicit Poe’s debt to Pennebaker, implicit throughout the rest of the film. Like the album, it charts one artist’s journey from despair to optimism. In so doing, it gives us reason to hope for progress in reactionary times.