Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen
Distributed by Cowboy Booking International
Opens in New York July 21st
So far, Cohen has alternated between music-related projects (five R.E.M. videos, along with INSTRUMENT) and non-narrative cityscapes (LOST BOOK FOUND, AMBER CITY), but BENJAMIN SMOKE occasionally strives to combine the two. At the start of the decade he and Sillen spent making this film, Benjamin's neighborhood Cabbagetown was the go-cart capital of the U.S. and a slum for people who fell out of the working-class when nearby textile mills shut down, the kind of place where glue is the drug of choice. (By the end of the film, it's become hip and gentrified.) Nevertheless, his creativity thrived in this atmosphere, and Cohen and Sillen seem fascinated by the genuinely marginal, Bohemian milieu Benjamin worked out of.
An openly gay, HIV-positive speed-freak who died in his 30s, Benjamin would be easy to portray as a classic victim of the rock'n'roll lifestyle - whose early death only added to his music's credibility - but Cohen and Sillen let him speak for himself rather than editorializing or passing judgment. He seemed to love talking as much as singing, speaking frankly about his drug use, reluctance to become a spokesperson for people with AIDS and history as a performer (including getting arrested the first time he played in public). Inspired by Patti Smith's 1975 album HORSES, he moved to New York and found a janitorial job at the legendary punk birthplace CBGB's. Upon returning to Atlanta, he began performing both as a drag queen/performance artist and the singer of a band called Freedom Puff. Eventually, Benjamin found his niche in the drag persona of Opal Foxx, who played with the 12-member Opal Foxx Quartet, which evolved into Smoke after the deaths of several members.
A first-rate infomercial for Smoke's music, BENJAMIN SMOKE works best
when it focuses on their performances. For all Cohen's avant-garde background,
he and Sillen wound up making a fairly conventional documentary centered
around talking-heads interviews, rehearsal and concert footage. In fact,
their attempts to insert "visual style" through sped-up footage of Benjamin
hanging around his house or cars driving around Cabbagetown look terribly
forced. The film even
flirts with a triumphant narrative arc: after a period of inactivity due to Benjamin's health problems, Smoke opens for his heroine Patti Smith, even jamming with her on a chaotic version of "Rock'N'Roll Nigger." (She later wrote a poem about him.) In a final interview, he optimistically discusses taking protease inhibitors, cutting back heavily on recreational drugs and growing closer to his mother. Unfortunately, disease had the final word, as this interview is followed by an intertitle
stating that he died at home in his sleep on January 29th, 1999. In a moving coda, Cohen and Sillen create a montage of photographer Michael Ackerman's black & white stills of Cabbagetown. BENJAMIN SMOKE may not do justice to everything it touches on - especially the uniquely Southern intersection between queer and punk culture reflected in Smoke and more famous Georgia bands like the B-52's - but it 's a fitting memorial for a unique character.