Film Review – The Family Jams
The documentary The Family Jams (2009), described as a look at young musicians, follows Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Vetiver as they go on tour in 2004. What we get is mostly random shots of random concerts and these singers walking around, without ever getting into who these people are and what their music means. It is obvious that director Kevin Barker cares about these people and what they are trying to do. Yet he is so close to the subject that it ends up hurting the film. He is so familiar with who these people are and what the music means to the people already listening to it that he fails to really introduce those of us who have no idea.
The music played here, I discovered after searching the web, has been described as New Weird America, a subgenre of psychedelic and folk. There was no indication given in the film about what this music is, really, or why it means so much to the people playing and listening to it. Now, if this style of music doesn’t do anything for you, you should avoid this film, because over half of it is filled with performing or practicing scenes. If the genre doesn’t interest you, you will be bored very fast.
The closest we get to any real information about the characters is from some early interviews with Devendra Banhart. We hear some details about his past, growing up and getting a guitar from his father, and really getting into the music that he could find in more mom-and-pop record stores. Yet this information feels irrelevant. His indie “cred” is already clear from the moment we see him, in his demeanor and the way he talks about lack of materialism and avoiding being a category. He seems to be a walking cliché of the indie artist, and beyond that we never have a clear view about who he is. We learn even less about everyone else on the tour.
Even the tour itself seems unclear, with no major differences between any of the locations. We are introduced to new people in each new town, but, as with the musicians, we are given no real information about who they are or why they are important. Even the musicians do not seem to have an opinion about the different cities and the experiences on the tour. Is it exciting them? Are they tired? What is the importance of the venues? Nothing is explored. When we do see moments outside of the performances, they are sporadic and there is little to nothing learned. The longest clip is of the subjects saving a dragonfly from their cooler; while perhaps poetic, it adds nothing to the narrative. The biggest event that happens is that Joanna Newsom has a friend who dies in a car accident, and so she misses some dates. The director mentions he filled in for her, much to the disappointment of the crowd. We never actually see how the crowd reacted to her absence, how her absence affects the group, or Newsom’s feelings about the death of her friend.
Even the camerawork and sound can be erratic at times. Many scenes have large groups around, or the subjects are outdoors, and it can be very hard to hear what they are saying over background noise and traffic. The director throws in subtitles once in a while to help, but that is sporadic at best. The camerawork is spotty, with some shots being at odd angles or out of focus, making it a struggle just to watch what is happening.
When we are first introduced to the group, Barker mentions that he is in Hawaii for his grandmother’s one hundredth birthday, and so he hasn’t started the documentary that he wanted following the musicians around. Then this moment is never mentioned again and has no bearing on anything else we see. That is what the whole film feels like. All of this might mean something to his family or the people he recorded, or as a memory to show his family what his friends were doing. Beyond that it could work as a quick guide to hear this genre of music. However, if you are looking for anything deeper about these musicians, their process, or anything about them beyond that they are musicians, you will be greatly disappointed.
Final Grade: F