Benjamin Smoke

Benjamin Smoke


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

Benjamin Smoke (Robert Dickerson) was an HIV-positive drug addict, drag queen musician. This documentary presents a portrait, intermingling footage of him talking about his difficult life with performances by his band Smoke, in which he was lead vocalist/writer.

The music - the musicians play cello, guitar, drums and trumpet/banjo - was interesting in a Velvet Underground/Tom Waits kind of way, although I found it difficult to sympathise with Smoke-the-drug-abuser, as distinct from Smoke-the-outsider, in the interview sections.

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Smoke lived in a rough area called Cabbagetown, which "wasn't a safe place" according to co-director Cohen, and had a propensity to disappear "for days on end". In such trying conditions the film-makers deserve credit for even getting the film made at all.

With one of his band's final performances, Smoke accomplished a life goal when he opened for Patti Smith, the artist who above all had transformed his own life. An intertitle informs us that Smoke died in January 1999. In a fitting coda, Smith recites her poem/song for Smoke.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Documentary about an outsider musician.
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Director: Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen

Starring: Benjamin Smoke, Tim Campion, Brian Halloran, Coleman Lewis, Bill Taft

Year: 1999

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: USA


EIFF 2000

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