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BENJAMIN SMOKE

USA, 1999 (MIFF 2000, Mooks Backbeat – Music on Film)

Director: Jem Cohen, Peter Sillen

REM's Michael Stipe first alerted directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen to the undiscovered musical genius of Benjamin Smoke; a performer with a voice of lyrical agility akin to a cross between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Tucked away in a dirt-poor outlying suburb of Atlanta called Cabbage Town, Benjamin (as he is known to everyone from friends and fans to the Georgia police) wiles his days chain smoking, drinking, consuming a cornucopia of drugs, shut away in a decrepit house turning out reams of haunting lyrics for his band. Growing out of the obscure Opal Foxx Quartet, Smoke, the band, craft a blend ot folk, punk and jazz that works to brilliant effect. Benjamin's hero, Patti Smith (who also performs and is interviewed in the film) attests to his singular ability to turn a phrase and capture golden moments plucked from a drab existence. Benjamin was never more honoured than when Smith composed a song of her own about him. Cohen and Sillen's documentary is a memorial to a performer whose entire body of work could have been lost if not for their remarkable film. A modern documentary classic.

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