This Man is Your Land
Mark Oliva | Muenchsteinach Deutschland | 02/24/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"First of all - if you live outside of the U.S. and Canada, ignore Amazon[.com]'s claim that this is a Region 1 CD. It's Region 0 or Region Free if you will, and it plays beautifully anywhere in the world. Yes, it really does play beautifully. If you find any joy whatsoever in American folk or country music and you're interested in both the people as well as the music side of things, there probably isn't a DVD anywhere you'll appreciate owning more. There are white folk and country musicians galore in the U.S., but Ramblin' Jack Elliott is a step apart from all of them. Why? Well, he's the real thing. When we think of other names associated with white folk music - Pete Seeger, maybe, or over on the other much more commercial end of things, folks like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, they all were great talents who reproduced folk music, not people who sang the songs they lived. Please don't interpret this as a bad shot at these folks. One thinks of Studs Terkel's introduction at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival: "Whenever you see a young banjo player anywhere in the country, with a banjo waist high, head back, Adam's apple bobbing, you can say like Kilroy, Pete Seeger has been there." That's one legacy in American folk music, one of a great man who went forth, learned the songs of his land and brought them to us. Our debt to Pete Seeger is great. Ramblin' Jack Elliott is the other side of that coin. He went out and learned the land and then learned to sing its songs but as an expression of his own life. He made the land his own, thus, by their very nature, the songs too became his own, although he wrote nary a one of them. This wonderful story of America singing out through one of its really great bards, minstrels and troubadours is joyous indeed. There are of course some other points made to a lesser extent in the film and to a greater extent in the promotional material. It's true that Ramblin' Jack spent five years on the road with his mentor, Woody Guthrie, and that Bobby Zimmermann aka Bob Dylan spent a good bit of time with his mentor, Ramblin' Jack. People like to raise Dylan's name in connection with this film, although it's largely irrelevant. Ramblin' Jack handles the idea himself in a black-and-white interview from the 1960s, when Dylan still was new on the block: "Hell, I've been singin' like Bob Dylan for 20 years now." The film was made by Ramblin' Jack's daughter Aiyana, and much is made of daughter's search for her father, but that really isn't the focal point of the film. That is the big slice of America that Ramblin' Jack is and was. If think you know Woody Guthrie's song "This Land is Your Land," take a good look at this film. Afterward, you'll understand it much better. With Ramblin' Jack in mind, you might even switch the lyrics a bit: "This Man is Your Land ...""
A fascinating, touching look at an overlooked figure
Mark Oliva | 06/12/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film is a fascinating character study and a touching look at the personal price people can pay for going their own way. Seeing the filmmaker, Elliott's daughter, trying to connect with her father while profiling him, is both sad and inspiring. The essence of the film seems to be summed up by Dave Van Ronk who tells Aiyana that he and countless others are grateful that Elliott roamed around, making music and being a folk treasure, but recognizes that his daughter never really had a father as a result. Her loss was our gain."
Dr Cathy Goodwin | Seattle, WA USA | 08/13/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What a treat! True, the film could have been developed more more professionally. True, there were too many shots of whiny ex-wives. And a psychoanalyst might have a field day with this film: Jack's aunt describes Jack's mom in uncomplimentary terms, to say the least. And maybe that's why Jack had so many different wives and girlfriends.
But what's important is that Aiyana Elliott did make a film, however flawed. Jack's not the type to dictate his memoirs. Without this video, we'd never have the opportunity to appreciate one man's fascinating life.
Born in Brooklyn to a doctor and a teacher, Jack always knew he wanted to be a cowboy. I was surprised to see so many home movies still preserved -- but there was Jack, galloping around on an imaginary horse. At age fifteen Jack ran away to join the rodeo. He returned to finish high school, most reluctantly, and then assumed his new identity of cowboy and folk singer.
Very few people make such a break from their childhoods and create their own identity from scratch. Even fewer live as free spirits. Jack was made for, and shaped by, an era when young boys could run off and join the rodeo without getting anybody arrested. He could watch cowboy movies and meet real cowboys in Madison Square Garden.
Jack deserves a video just for the way he lived his life. The music is frosting on the cake, and very thick frosting it is, too.
Aiyana initially wants to know her dad and have at least one conversation with him. One of the strongest moments comes when Arlo Guthrie urges her to give up her quest. Maybe it's not for you to know, he says. There's a bit of irony here: Woodly Guthrie was Jack Elliott's mentor and now his son Arlo mentors Jack's daughter, if only briefly.
Jack Elliott wanted to do things his way, even if his way may seem difficult, even self-destructive, to an outsider. He was too "disorganized" to attract a top-quality manager. Norman Leventhal, who managed many folk singers (including the Weavers) explained: You'd spend a long time setting up a deal, and then Jack couldn't be found.
Because Jack doesn't talk -- apparently to anyone, not just his daughter -- we'll never know how he felt as he ventured around the country during those years. Did he ever get frustrated or sad or discouraged? Maybe he buried his feelings so he could keep going. Maybe he never had many bad days: he's certainly one of the most cheerful, gregarious characters ever captured on film. Too much introspection would have driven him off the road.
As one interviewee says, maybe Jack could have settled down into a house with a "normal" family. Maybe he would have been happy. But he wouldn't have been Jack. I don't think he would have been happy, either. Being somewhat of a wanderer myself, I believe some people are made to keep moving, and they're miserable if they force themselves to settle too quickly.
I'm not musically expert enough to evaluate Jack's talent. His sound isn't as strong or individual as, say, Johnny Cash or Kris Kristofferson, both of whom appear in the film. But he's got intensity and feeling. And he never stopped traveling, singing and learning.
The video ends with Ramblin Jack accepting a national arts award from President Clinton, just after he had won a grammy for his first studio album. A fictional movie with a lead character like Jack and an ending like this one would be dismissed as a sappy fairy tale with a Hollywood ending. The charm of this video is that, on the contrary, it's very very real.
Susie Long | County Kilkenny, Ireland | 03/14/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I bought this after seeing Jack in concert in the back of a small pub in Ireland. He talked more than he played music but it didn't matter. We were well entertained no matter what he did. But I came away wanting to know more about him. I bought this dvd figuring it would be just a general documentary about him like so many other films about musicians - a general overview kind of thing. But what I got was a beautifully made, sometimes bittersweet, film about a man who is a legand, but only to those who are in the know.
I highly recommend this to anyone who's interested in American folk music and American history."