Jandek on Corwood

"Excellent"

Jandek on Corwood Review


The history of popular music is littered with strange obscurities, but few come quite so strange - and none so willfully obscure - as Jandek. Since 1978, a man operating under that pseudonym has been recording and releasing albums that are singular in both their dark mood and their nearly complete rejection of traditional ideas about songcraft. It's likely that if you were left alone for a while with an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, the knowledge of (perhaps) a chord or two, and a broken heart, you'd produce something fairly Jandek-like - a dark, primitive minimalist blues-howl that, though hardly lovely, would be in its own way musical. As one fan asserts early in the documentary Jandek on Corwood, "the man isn't talentless."

You could produce something Jandek-like, yes. But what you likely wouldn't do is what Jandek has done: Through the Corwood Industries record label, he has released 37 similarly melancholic albums in 26 years. During that time, the man behind Jandek has managed to almost completely hide himself from public view. He may or may not be a man named Sterling Smith (who signs Corwood Industries' checks), who may or may not live in the Houston area (where Corwood keeps a P.O. box), and may or may not look like the gentleman pictured on the covers of various Jandek albums with titles like Shadow of Leaves, Blue Corpse, and Telegraph Melts. (Seth Tisue's "A Guide to Jandek" is an excellent place to start exploring the myth in detail.) Everything about Jandek is pretty much a mystery -- and from such mysteries, cult figures are made.

It's a damn small cult, though; a film that unmasked Jandek would be a meaningful event to tens, perhaps dozens of record label owners and rock critics. So Jandek on Corwood director Chad Freidrichs deserves credit for using the Jandek story to make a much more interesting film: A story about the way fans struggle to make sense of an artist without the usual assistance from the artist himself. The Jandek fans who speak on camera - record label owners, rock critics, and Dr. Demento, among others - all seem to suffer from various degrees of sensory deprivation. They all admit that Jandek's obscurity is part of his music's appeal, but the lack of information about Jandek has made them suspicious about the motives of their hero. Perhaps it's all a hoax, they wonder; maybe Corwood Industries is a well-hidden subsidiary of some Bechtel-style conglomerate; maybe all the albums were recorded years ago and Jandek's long since dead; maybe he's spent serious time struggling with mental illness; perhaps he still does. His fans tend to imagine him as anything but a normally functioning human being, so when Jandek does something that demonstrates typical socialization - like work with a female vocalist on a truly gorgeous song titled "Nancy Sings" - everybody registers a seismic shock.

The Jandek myth is inherently fascinating, which gives Jandek on Corwood some immediate depth. But Freidrichs' construction of the film makes it more than scraps of filmed record-geek chatter. For one thing, Jandek's own music is in the background of nearly every minute of film, which gives it a slightly off-kilter, foreboding feel (in this context, Jandek's music doesn't sound so very different from the incidental music in horror films). And the establishing shots echo the shadowy, ghostly quality of the Jandek record covers - ill-lit rooms, a seashore on an overcast day, dilapidated houses in empty fields are all given to us as we move from subject to subject. Watching the film feels, appropriately, conspiratorial.

For the hard-core fan, the final 10 minutes of Jandek on Corwood might qualify as a careful-what-you-wish-for moment: A peek into Jandek's identity that's simultaneously more illuminating and more mundane than anybody would ever have expected. The lesson may be that the knowledge that's being hungered for won't actually change anybody's interest (or disinterest) in the music. But regardless of how you come down on Jandek's music, it's hard not to be fascinated by the enigmatic world he both inhabits and cultivates. Every music documentary is about the cult of personality; in Jandek on Corwood the personality lacks a person, but the results are compelling nonetheless.

The Jandek on Corwood DVD includes a wealth of extras, including a commentary track, essays and articles, song samples, an extended commentary on Jandek album covers (!), expert interviews held during a 24-hour "Jandek Orgy" aired by Harvard's radio station in 2003, and the Jandek Holy Grail: a 49-minute audio interview with the man himself (the only one known to be recorded), conducted in 1985 and excerpted in the film.

Jantastic!



Jandek on Corwood

Facts and Figures

Run time: 88 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 1st February 2003

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 8 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 7.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Chad Freidrichs

Contactmusic


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