04 September, 2012

RIFF: "American Songwriter" (****1/2)

Danny Darst stars in "American Songwriter"

Director Michael Altman matter-of-factly states that Danny Darst resides in the same class as Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Seeing as Darst and Waits have both ricocheted back and forth between music and film (even starring together in "Short Cuts"), the Waits parallels are much more firm than those with Cohen. Nonetheless, I would have to agree. Unfortunately, most people simply have not heard of Danny Darst.

"American Songwriter" is at once both a long form music video and a biographical documentary. The film's mosaic structure tells a large story in tiny pieces; propelled at different times by a song lyric, a fire-lit performance, a stroll down Nashville's Broadway or an interview conducted from the passenger side of Darst's 1950s Oldsmobile. It is instantly clear that, fame or no fame, Darst is a legend. A guitar is the tap to his maple tree and stories just pour out of this man. His complete lack of attention grabbing only adds to his appeal. He is the Dos Equis man, except more interesting and with a wardrobe seemingly comprised completely of weathered denim. The sunglasses permanently fixed on his intransigent face make him appear imposing, only to have his occasional laugh completely disarm you.

In between some of the more travel-centric portions of the film, we learn about Darst's arrival in Nashville and his break into the industry as an acclaimed songwriter. The trucker mentality he so naturally possessed provided a new voice on the scene.
"A songwriter is a potential timebomb because he can roll-in in shirtsleeves, sleeping in a dumpster, throw a song out there and six weeks later, they are writing him huge checks."
His 'breathe, think and don't stop' philosophy allowed his career to quickly progress, carrying him across the country; an endless routine between Nashville, Los Angeles and New York City.

Robert Altman had many frequent collaborators, Darst counted among them. His first foray into the film industry was as a songwriter, but it only made sense for filmmakers to see that someone as talented and colorful as Darst shouldn't have any trouble acting. Weaving his way through the catalogues of both Altman and Jonathan Demme throughout the 1980s and 90s, Darst quietly built a sturdy film résumé. While we can be thankful that his film work was responsible for his friendship with the Altman family, his true calling was always songwriting. In recent years, Robert Altman's son Michael and Darst have continued to build on their friendship with a solid business partnership.

The film is no technical marvel, but possesses everything it needs to get the job done. Some less-than-perfect sound editing makes it a little difficult to shift your focus between Darst's monologue and song vocals, but they are both telling the same story in the end. A passion project between the two friends, the film's goal of spreading the word about Darst's boundless talent is met without obstacle. The accomplishment could further be measured by the countless new fans created at each new screening.

The Rome International Film Festival has the exceptional privilege to showcase "American Songwriter" as their 2012 opening night film. Both Altman and Darst will be in attendance and can expect a legion of new devotees in Northwest Georgia.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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