The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack Movie Review
Aiyana Elliott previously made an impression on the festival circuit with her ferocious short, Tough, which offered a strong visual sensibility influenced by the washed out look of the golden era of '70s filmmaking. She knew how to truthfully portray a modern dysfunctional family, with naturalistic performances and startlingly honest dialogue, a unit whose means of communication is handled through shouting. It's not surprising to see that these themes continue in her current feature.
If Ms. Elliott's documentary fares less well, it's perhaps because her instincts are stronger as a narrative filmmaker with control over the subject matter and, perhaps, autobiographical implications. The fact is, her dad doesn't really like to talk about himself. He flagrantly shows his lack of connection and wary affection. At nearly two hours, the film is too long, and Jack Elliott rambles and evades questions to the point where we genuinely "get it" after an hour or so. From then on, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack seems redundant.
Aiyana Elliott makes herself a character in the film, along for the ride during a Midwest tour and chronicling her daddy's life on the way. Ramblin' Jack was a big folk singer I'd never heard of. Bob Dylan was his pupil, and he was apparently a huge influence on the Rolling Stones, Dylan and other rock/folk performers. Kris Kristofferson and Arlo Guthrie are among the celebrities waxing philosophical about Ramblin' jack, usually saying that they never saw someone speak so well about absolutely worthless horseshit.
There's a personal history unfolding, breaking through the '50s into the beatnik era and the swinging '60s, to the trippy '70s style which influences the entire movie. Aiyana Elliott tries to get sun flare in almost every shot which tracks down the desolate patches of road and field in the heartland of America.
The interviews have a range from the honest to the superficial, which you'll find in many documentaries. When people try to get into the depth of Jack's persona or personality, it feels pretty thin and rote. Still, Aiyana Elliott is able to capture the gravity of silences, when people aren't sure what to say. There's a brilliant sequence where she asks her mom how good of a husband and father he was, and she can't answer for a good minute, trying to control her fits of laughter.
There's a wonderful, definitive moment where Aiyana and her dad are driving around trying to find the first house she lived in. It's important for her, a touch of personal nostalgia, and he can't find it. He finally gives up after having promised her to track it down. He's a pill, even a bit of a prick. Boy, does he annoy Aiyana onscreen, but the moment plays out sad and funny.
That's the tone of The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, which earns the moment where Jack sings a lonely tune for his daughter at the last concert. He's too mean to be sentimental, but the heartstrings get tugged nonetheless.