Two of this week’s new releases involve father-daughter relationships before and behind the camera. In her documentary The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, Aiyana Elliott struggles to come to terms with her elusive folk-singer parent. In Duets, Gwyneth Paltrow, directed by her father, Bruce, plays a young woman unexpectedly reunited with her errant dad at her mother’s funeral.
Sixty-nine-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is a self-creation, born Elliott Adnopoz, the son of a Jewish Brooklyn doctor. Fascinated by cowboy music and Western lore, the singer-guitarist ran away from home at 15 and joined a rodeo. Returning to New York, he met and became the protégé of legendary folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie. In the mid-’50s, Elliott and the first of his four wives moved to England, where he became the key figure in a burgeoning folk-music movement. He played a similar role in the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk revival and mentored another self-invention, the young Bob Dylan, whom he introduced to Guthrie. Subsequently estranged from and commercially eclipsed by Dylan, Elliott spent most of the ’70s and ’80s playing obscure gigs and, smarting from a lack of recognition, assuaged his frustration with alcohol and drugs. But a renewed interest in his music culminated in the 1995 Grammy-winning CD South Coast and a National Medal of Arts awarded in 1998 by President Clinton.
The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack is Aiyana Elliott’s attempt to understand a shadowy figure who drifted in and out of her childhood. She accompanies him on the road in his Land Rover, trying, with little success, to interrogate him about his life and force him to articulate his feelings about her. She employs familiar documentary techniques to flesh out his nonresponses: archival footage, vintage press clippings, and newly shot interviews with, among others, Arlo and Nora Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Kris Kristofferson, members of the Adnopoz family, and her lively, earthy mother, Martha Elliott.
If Aiyana Elliott’s mosaic fails to yield a coherent portrait of her father, the fault lies with its subject. Wry but distant, spacey and self-involved, Ramblin’ Jack inhabits a private universe untainted by mirrors. His attempts at reflection go no deeper than grudgingly admitting that he was not a very good parent. After 105 minutes of cinematic investigation, he escapes with his secrets intact.
One’s response to documentaries about artists depends on one’s interest in the subject’s work. Although Elliott’s quicksilver guitar picking is impressive, his high, nasal voice and affected phrasing leave me cold. The contrast between footage of one-man-band bluesman Jesse Fuller’s performance of his infectious signature composition, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and Elliott’s version works to the latter’s disadvantage. Fuller is the real thing, using words and music to express his own history and experience. Despite his Stetson hats, cowboy boots, Western drawl, and decades of roadhouse gigs, Elliott strikes me as something of a narcissistic sham. In a shorter movie, he might have been able to sustain his myth, but this overlong feature, despite considerable strengths, unwittingly exposes his inauthenticity.
Unlike the younger Elliott, Gwyneth Paltrow would be better off if her father had kept his distance. Although he has won awards as the producer and director of the television series St. Elsewhere and The White Shadow, Bruce Paltrow hasn’t made a theatrical movie since his feature debut, the wan 1982 comedy-drama A Little Sex. Unless his Oscar-winning spawn agrees to work with him again, he’s unlikely to return to the big screen for another two decades after the cacophonous Duets.
Writer-producer John Byrum’s original screenplay is an ensemble piece focusing on a sextet of geographically diverse characters who converge in Omaha, Neb., for the $5,000 Grand Prize Karaoke Contest. Along with naive Vegas showgirl Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her karaoke hustler father, Ricky (Huey Lewis), the competitors include Suzi (Maria Bello), a desperate, sluttish West Virginia songbird-wannabe who hitches a ride with Billy (Scott Speedman), an idealistic cab driver betrayed by his ditzy girlfriend, and Todd (Paul Giamatti), a burned-out salesman who abandons his family and, on the road, hooks up with Reggie (Andre Braugher), a golden-throated ex-convict.
The interlocking-story-line structure that served Paltrow effectively in St. Elsewhere fails here because Byrum’s characters are so trite, especially Todd, whose frequent anti-corporation rants stop the action dead in its tracks. (The sole note of ironic interest here is the effrontery of Hollywood Pictures, a Disney company, in producing a movie that rails against the capitalist homogenization of the American landscape.) The scenes with Todd and his indifferent suburban wife and children play like ugly retreads of American Beauty, which, itself, felt like a wheezy John Cheever reject. The remaining characters are only a shade less stereotypical: the self-sacrificing black man (Reggie), the vulnerable trollop with dreams of stardom (Suzi), and the aging, transient lounge lizard (Ricky) whose neglected child thaws his frozen heart.
None of the performers are granted enough screen time to transcend their stock roles. The fetching Bello comes off best, as the tough-tender tart, and delivers rousing versions of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This.)” Although his role is the least developed, Speedman manages to project an amiable presence. Apart from an embarrassingly stiff cameo by Angie Dickinson, the filmmaker’s daughter makes the worst impression. She’s depleted her tiny bag of tricksthose meltingly sad eyes, those simpering smilesand must now learn to act or resign herself to a future as a fading tabloid celebrity.
With its garish color, graceless compositions, and herky-jerky editing, Duets looks as clumsy as it plays. Its bollixed denouementwe never find out who wins the karaoke contestwould be infuriating if the movie hadn’t exhausted our interest long before its climax. CP