Just an American Boy came about in part when Artemis Records’ president Danny Goldberg asked writer/filmmaker Amos Poe if he’d like to do “a Don’t Look Back on Steve Earle” (referring to D.A. Pennebaker’s classic cinema verite documentary on Bob Dylan).
Poe immediately loved the idea of a black-and-white documentary/concert film on the firebrand troubadour — only to discover that Goldberg wanted things in color (not to worry: Poe sneaked in some black-and-white — and even green-and-white — sequences). So the idea was immediately a little compromised from the filmmaker’s standpoint. And that may be just as well, since even though Poe is good, he’s not quite up to Pennebaker’s speed — and the rougher, cruder, often garishly colored Just an American Boy is both truer to Poe, and somehow more fitting for its subject.
I admit that I’m not terribly experienced with Steve Earle’s music — which sometimes sounds to me like rock, sometimes like bluegrass, sometimes like country. (I get the feeling that Earle might best like to be thought of as a musical activist — without any genre pigeonholing.)
But I’m not sure that knowing his music is requisite here. Indeed, my lack of familiarity with Earle’s work may just make me the ideal viewer for this film, which includes, among its 95 minutes, 18 of his songs, plus insights into his background, beliefs, problems and personality, all centered around the time of Earle’s 2002 tour for his Jerusalem album, and its controversial song “John Walker’s Blues.”
Just an American Boy is impossible to approach in an apolitical manner, because, at bottom, it’s a very political film. The first thing, in fact, that really caught my attention was Earle prefacing a song with the announcement, “Just remember that no matter what you hear, that it’s never ever unpatriotic or un-American to question any f***ing thing in a democracy, no matter what Time or anybody on CNN says it is.” Gee, I thought, this is stronger than any supposed “sin” committed by the Dixie Chicks.
And it didn’t stop there.
Earle was soon prefacing another song with extended ruminations about some of his heroes who “could” have peopled the tune — an unusual collection ranging from Abbie Hoffman to Joan Baez to Illinois Gov. George Ryan — who, as his last official act in office, commuted death sentences. That Ryan should be one of Earle’s heroes is hardly surprising, since the singer is a staunch opponent of the death penalty — “I object to the damage that it does to my spirit for my government to kill people, because my government’s supposed to be me, and I object to me killing people. It’s really simple” — something he traces back to seeing the details of a hanging in the film version of In Cold Blood (who says socially conscious movies have no impact?).
All of which leads — not unnaturally — to the case of John Walker Lindh, the young American who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and about whom Earle wrote “John Walker’s Blues.” The song, blasted by pundits on the right when it came out, had Earle soon branded a “Taliban sympathizer.” (There’s a marvelous clip of George Bush Sr. sneering about this “poor boy from Marin County”). Typically, such outrage seems to have arisen in people who hadn’t actually heard the song (which strikes me as coming across not as pro-Taliban, but as empathizing with a lost boy searching for some meaning in his life, finding Muhammed as some kind of answer).
“John Walker’s Blues” hints at disillusionment in its conclusion, with its protagonist finding himself not suddenly propelled to heaven by dying in a holy war, but instead facing a mundane 20 years in prison (“Allah had some other plan”). According to Earle, the song came about because of the way America “focused on John Walker Lindh because we couldn’t get Osama bin Laden, and [it's] people’s anger and the need for retribution [that's] always the real issue. Whether retribution is worth it is always the real issue around the death penalty, and I think it figures into this — the idea that someone has to pay, even if it’s the wrong person.”
It’s powerful stuff, but no more so than Earle’s personal problems with drug addiction and the law, or even the rigors of his performing schedule. And in the end, Just an American Boy provides an excellent primer on Earle — as a man, as a musician and as an outspoken activist. Did it make me want to run out and buy his albums? Well, maybe not (it’s just not quite my line of country). But it did make me like the man, and respect the activist — and the artist.
Three out of four ain’t bad.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke