BENJAMIN SMOKE

Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen

Distributed by Cowboy Booking International

***
Opens in New York July 21st



Despite their leftist politics and fiercely anti-music industry stance, the Washington, DC punk band Fugazi, profiled in Jem Cohen's documentary INSTRUMENT, has  sold hundreds of thousands of albums and even cracked the BILLBOARD Top 100. Benjamin Smoke, the late singer profiled in Cohen's latest film, wasn't so lucky. Although his Atlanta-based band Smoke released two albums, this posthumous documentary is likely to be the first exposure most music fans outside the South have had to them.  Combining Benjamin's cigarette-ravaged, gravely voice with an eclectic set of influences (country, jazz, punk) and instrumentation (including banjo, cello, electric guitar, trumpet and drums) in a manner quite reminiscent of Nashville band Lambchop, their music  sounds pretty remarkable. (A soundtrack album will be released in late summer/early fall, and Benjamin's music is now available from this web site.) While Cohen and Sillen were right to "avoid the promotional clichés employed in today's superstar-obsessed climate," as Cowboy Booking's press kit puts it, it's a shame that their film couldn't have come out when Smoke still could have benefited from it.

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.