Review: It’s About You
Despite the fact that the entire premise of the film involves following three of music’s biggest stars on tour and that there are lengthy scenes inside of Sun Records, Kurt and Ian Markus’s documentary It’s About You isn’t primarily about the music, at least not in the sense that we have come to expect from so-called “rockumentaries.” Instead it uses the music to advance a far broader narrative about the widespread decay of the country that inspired that music. In doing so, the film more than lives up to it’s title. It’s about us: the fans who go to shows to see our favorite entertainers year after year, but can no longer afford to go to many shows. It’s about the people who live in the small towns and cities of America and, in a very real sense, it’s about class warfare, controlled demolitions, and the endangerment of a once-great culture.
Shot on vintage Super 8 equipment by first-time directors Kurt and Ian Markus (Kurt is a well-respected photographer and Ian is his son), It’s About You documents the recording of John Mellencamp’s album No Better than This and his tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan during the recording of the album, but more importantly it documents America circa 2009, roughly a year after the collapse of Wall Street and over a decade since blue-collar American workers became, for all intents and purposes, a thing of the past. Perhaps that is why this documentary is as far as you can possibly get from your standard ass-kissing, reality show-styled celebrity portrait. In fact, Mellencamp rarely speaks to or even acknowledges the camera and the directors instead tell their own story through their own eyes.
The elder Markus’s straightforward journal entry-like narration provides the true heart of the film. Early on, as the two-man crew follows the tour bus through St. Louis in a rented minivan he asks, “What will these tall buildings look like 50 years into the future? Like a bigger version of vacated small town America?” The story is always the same whether in Memphis, Mellencamp’s hometown of Seymour, Indiana, or Littlefield, Texas, a virtual ghost town with nothing going for it but a water tower that reads “Hometown of Waylon Jennings.”
Even the musical portions of the film carry that same dire message about America’s downfall. Take for instance the performance of John’s 1987 hit “Paper in Fire” and the fact that the camera is firmly planted on the audience during the part about “dreams burning up.” Or the recording sessions in Memphis where the city’s glory days are proudly documented in photos on the walls of Sun Studio and the city’s present state is demonstrated by the blocks of abandoned buildings. As Markus states, over footage of Mellencamp recording the bleak and bitter tune “The West End,” “These empty shells of better days are the biggest attraction America has going for it.”
None of which is to say that music fans will not be pleased by the film. It offers an inside look at a Hall of Fame musician on stage and in the studio and also gives us a rare glimpse of T-Bone Burnett in his element.