Monday, March 5, 2012

The Queue Continuum: Just an American Boy

As a Steve Earle fan, I found it a bit odd that the existence of this film had evaded my purview until now. Having seen it, I guess I can see why.

As a filmic experience, Just an American Boy is frustrating. Amos Poe's documentary follows the eloquent rocker/activist as he tours following his 2002 album Jerusalem, which was his politically charged response to the post-9/11/pre-Iraq War environment marked with near-jingoism and a thirst for payback. His song "John Walker's Blues," which sought to look at the person of John Walker Lindh with empathy, became a lightning rod for right-wing warmongers wanting to paint voices of reason and dissent as anti-American.

Taking place at the height of all of this, the actual film is unfocused and largely disappointing. With all of this going on and with all of Earle's activist causes, particularly his vociferous anti-death penalty stance, Poe is unable to form a narrative that has cohesion. The film jumps all over the place time-wise; its editing often making little sense. Shot digitally, it looks extremely dated, much more than its ten years. Poe opts to use extremely dated effects, to what purpose it is hard to decode, but the lasting effect is that the film feels much more like a low-budget rock-doc from the mid-80s.

This is a shame because just watching and listening to Earle is in itself engrossing. He's well-spoken, compassionate, measured, compelling, and magnetic. His political views center on conscience. He is able to convey his understanding of the history of music in such an engaging way that one could simply listen to him speak on that subject for days. It is unfortunate that given this access Poe is unable to do his subject justice.

That said, for Steve Earle fans, getting to see him--and his son Justin Townes Earle, for that matter--as he is off-stage has its merits. He gets to shine through in spite of the film's shortcomings.

Since I can't find a trailer for the movie, I'll just throw in a Steve Earle performance on Letterman in 1988.

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