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Benjamin Smoke

AtlantaMoviesEntertainmentPatti SmithMovie IndustryAthensAthens (Greece)

Friday August 11, 2000

     You don't have to know anything about music, you do not even have to have heard of the man whose name and band provide the title for "Benjamin Smoke," a haunting portrait of a lyricist-singer who is the very embodiment of Edna St. Vincent Millay's famous observation that burning the candle at both ends produces "such a lovely light."
     Born in Jonesboro, Ga., in 1960 and known as Robert Dickerson, after one of his numerous stepfathers, the man who would eventually call himself Benjamin and his band Smoke was a smiling, towheaded boy who discovered that he liked to dress up in his mother's clothes and that he was gay.
     He was living in rural Waco, Ga., on a dirt road in a house without plumbing when he first heard Patti Smith on the radio. Up till then he had no particular interest in music but then realized that it "could be different. I never felt that before." Pretty soon Benjamin was wholeheartedly throwing himself into a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, becoming a fixture in the underground music scene of Athens, Ga., as well as Atlanta.
     It was in Athens, in 1989, that Jem Cohen, who made this film with Peter Sillen, first saw Smoke at the urging of Michael Stipe of R.E.M., whom Cohen was filming at the time. Back then, Benjamin was performing in drag as Opal Foxx, who led a band in a riveting and eclectic set of songs.
     When we first hear Benjamin singing at the opening of the film, he sounds a lot like Tom Waits, and when we meet him, sitting on an Atlanta apartment building rooftop, he is a ravaged-looking, rail-thin man, once handsome, who looks a lot older than someone in his late 30s. (You inevitably think of Chet Baker in his last days.)
     Benjamin speaks without self-pity and often with humor of having lived hard and poor, relentlessly on the margins, and of his drug use and his struggle with AIDS. There is so much passion and eloquence in everything he says that he brings to mind the poets--from Keats and Shelley to Sylvia Plath--who seem unable to create without consuming themselves in the process. A chain-smoker and pot lover, Benjamin also used speed and barbiturates, which he gave up to improve his health as much as possible.
     Before cleaning up his act and moving into that Atlanta apartment, Benjamin is seen in his cottage in Atlanta's Cabbagetown, a picturesque, ramshackle and dangerous area surrounding an abandoned mill about to be overtaken by gentrification. In rooms decorated with thrift shop finery, he recalls another gay underground artist, New York filmmaker Jack Smith, also a man who looked fragile but lived his life fearlessly.
     Benjamin speaks of his derelict neighborhood affectionately as a place he had been drawn to in his youth because of its hustlers and glue sniffers. He recalls a short period in Manhattan in the late '70s, in which he got a job sweeping up broken glass on the floor of the legendary Bowery punk club CBGB--and where he met his idol, Patti Smith, briefly.
     Despite his painfully obvious ill health, Benjamin keeps on performing with his group Smoke, composed of a group of young men as talented as they are ordinary-looking and who seem to be in robust health. Benjamin's big moment occurs when Patti Smith asks them to open for her in Atlanta. He says he can't believe she had their two CDs, "Another Reason to Fast" and "Heaven on a Popsicle Stick," and could quote from them.
     The filmmakers, whose spare, spontaneous yet poetic style echoes that of their subject, keep the focus firmly on Benjamin, recording his observations and performances over a period of time. There's no conventional biographical background provided or interviews with friends and colleagues, nor is there any need for them.
     There's such a rawness, purity and even mystical force to everything Benjamin says or sings, that anything else would seem extraneous and detracting from the impact of a man who has lived his life with absolutely no holds barred. In his most substantial personal allusion he notes that there's nothing like AIDS to reunite a son and his mother.
     There is a coda to "Benjamin Smoke" in which Patti Smith speaks of Benjamin and his impact on her and her work, and of the bravery and determination with which he continued to perform despite his declining health. A quote from a poem by Smith in honor of Benjamin opens the film, capturing the essence of his spirit: "With a throat smooth as a lamb yet dry as a branch not snapping / He throws back his head yet he does not sing a thing mournful." *


Benjamin Smoke, 2000. Unrated. A C-Hundred Film Corp. and Cowboy Booking International presentation of a co-production of Gravity Hill Films and Pumpernickel. Directors-cinematographers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. Executive producer Noah Cohen. Editor Nancy Roach. Cabbagetown still photos Michael Ackerman. Music Smoke. Running time: 1 hour, 13 minutes.

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