Benjamin Smoke an impressionistic portrait of a local maverick
Local singer/lyricist Benjamin (nee Robert Dickerson), the tender-hearted, wasted-looking and astoundingly droll leader of the bands Smoke and the Opal Foxx Quartet, made Atlanta seem like a city of artistic possibility, where an iconoclastic, creative subculture thrived in the shadow of the city's larger corporate identity. With his death of complications from AIDS in 1999, the city's underground cachet crumbled a little as Cabbagetown, Benjamin's former home, became a growing yuppie burg and some of the city's musicians and artists splintered off to greener big city fields.
Benjamin Smoke is a documentary portrait of the late musician and speed-freak raconteur who seemed to thrive on, or at least draw inspiration from, what he acidly (but with a degree of respect) called "the good things in life: interbreeding and sniffing glue out of Colonial bread sacks."
Unlike a traditional doc, which might encompass the childhood rise to artistic success and creative life of an artist, Benjamin Smoke takes its idiosyncratic cue from its subject to offer an impressionistic picture of the man who became a local icon and skilled weaver of his own personal folklore. Scattered and sensory, Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's film takes the measure of Benjamin's music and strives to capture the funky slacker-meets-Gummo edginess of Cabbagetown in its pre-gentrification, pre-loft years.
The best aspect of the film is its willingness to simply turn the camera on Benjamin and let his unique musings dominate. Even looking drugged to the gills and bearing the marks of a lifelong fatigue, Benjamin displays an intoxicating wit and shabby glamour. One of the best moments in the film is of Benjamin, reclining like an Oriental odalisque in his tattered digs, describing the magic of "getting off" from making music. "It's so much fun," he says in his unique mix of boyish innocence and drag queen rakishness. Of his band Smoke, he wonders, "Why is it so easy for five guys who don't really hang out that much to get together and make something so beautiful?"
Benjamin is the kind of brilliant, charismatic person who passes through some of our lives, whose creativity should have made him a star, if there was a system of just reward in the world. The singer/performer was all the more amazing for his ability to rise above his addiction, his poverty, HIV status and hints of a bizarre, desperate history to forge a successful career as a local legend. Though, like many beloved small-scale celebrities, Benjamin never went on to national fame, the film hardly makes that seem like a problem — nothing about his life in this portrait seems reconcilable with record deals or fame or mainstream adoration. Not merely some beloved local kook, Benjamin emerges in Benjamin Smoke as an edgy rejection of every stupid folklore about musical talent and celebrity — the film's subject is all the more appealing for never appearing to want fame, a real aberration in this day and age.
Benjamin's jagged, intense performance style is recorded in Benjamin Smoke as a kind of wild, glowing, carnal magic that transforms an ordinary citizen of the planet into an emotional prophet. Benjamin displays an amazing presence both on stage and off, and it is clearly that aura, often dependent upon not being quite famous enough, that Benjamin Smoke strives to capture.
Testament to Benjamin's talent is a final vignette in the film of Patti Smith in her New York apartment reading lyrics that were inspired by watching Benjamin perform. While the directors defer to songwriting greatness in Smith's case to bolster their argument for Benjamin's gift, it would have been nice to have grounded Benjamin more firmly in a local hierarchy beyond the tiny radius of his Cabbagetown doorstep and to have shown how influential and respected his reach was in the city where he lived, rather than deferring to a big-city pronouncement of worth. Benjamin, after all, was not some rare orchid who flourished incongruously in a dung heap but was part of a community of artists and musicians who continue to work in the city.
Despite a distracting tendency to foreground their stylistic fidgeting and flourishes, for the most part Cohen and Sillen's Benjamin Smoke is a vastly entertaining, liberating portrait of a subversive, uniquely Southern character. Revelation tends to seep out at the edges of Benjamin Smoke and is certainly not elicited by its filmmakers, who allow Benjamin to decide what and how much he will say. But one of the saddest moments in the film is watching Benjamin in his HUD apartment on Ponce, surrounded by his TV and his aquarium, where one senses some of the loneliness of being different, compounded by the isolating effects of terminal illness. An honest, noble portrait of a genuine maverick, Benjamin Smoke manages to acknowledge some of that isolation, while showing the power of talent and creativity to transcend it.