Engagingly Unrevealing

Never heard of Jandek? So what? The documentary about this elusive musician is still a must-see

Jandek fans across the country, rejoice! Finally, after 34 albums filled with the obscure warbling of America's favorite songster, we have the documentary on our icon and idol that we've all been waiting for: one that reveals almost nothing about him.

In a year when critics like myself have been forced to sit through dozens of documentary films, from the engaging President Bush Is Making My Kittens Cry to the stirring Liberals Killed My Mom and Lied About It to the heartwarming Corporations Are Mean!, this film stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's my favorite documentary not only of this year, but of any even-numbered year not divisible by 42.

What makes Jandek on Corwood so great is that in content, it respects its subject, and in style, it mirrors his mood. For those who've been living under a rock for the last 30 years, well, you know who Jandek is. For the rest of you, a little explanation is in order.

And that's what Jandek on Corwood provides: a little explanation, but not too much. You see, Jandek is the world's most obscure rock-and-roll superstar. No one knows his name, his precise address, what he does for a living (it's clearly not music) or whether or not he's actually capable of tuning a guitar.

Some 25 years ago, though, Jandek began putting out the bestest records in the whole world. His formula is so brilliant that it's actually been studied by people who go to college! In short, the records usually consist of an out-of-tune guitar being played very, very slowly while a man (perhaps Jandek?) "sings" in a manner that can best be described as "poorly."

This may not sound like a recipe for success, and, in fact, it's not. Jandek is thought to have given away about five times as many records as he's sold. But once you get into his music, it's hard to resist. There's really nothing like it, and his fans (I count myself among them, and that counting can be done on one hand) have a rabid devotion to his somewhat unlistenable stylings.

They also are devoted to the myth of Jandek. With exactly zero public appearances until a few weeks ago (he reportedly appeared at a Scottish music festival), one interview and no contact with his fans, Jandek is the musical equivalent of Batman: We know that he's a great force for justice, but beyond that, who he is is anyone's guess.

Director Chad Friedrichs is incredibly sensitive to the obscurity that is such a central part of Jandek. In an ingenious cinematic move, Friedrichs never presents the man (which would have been impossible, given Jandek's camera shyness), but rather the impression he leaves on those who wish they knew him. Thus, the movie mostly progresses through beautifully filmed interviews with people who have tried to meet Jandek.

The only person who's really come close to succeeding is rock critic John Trubee, who mentions early in the film that he had a phone interview with Jandek in 1985. At the very end of the film, after Friedrichs has perfectly established the mystery and weird allure of Jandek, he finally plays that phone interview.

It's the perfect coda to this nearly perfect film: Jandek reveals nothing, but at the same time, you come away from the interview--and from Jandek on Corwood--knowing everything you need to know about Jandek.

I should be clear, too, that this film is not just for Jandek fanatics. Most of the people I've watched it with had no idea who Jandek was, and yet they were completely enraptured by the story. That's partly because it's far more than a story about one strange man. The very thought of a musician pursuing obscurity is so antithetical to modern American culture that it stands as a looking-glass view of the entire music and entertainment industry.

Jandek is essentially everything that that industry is not: He's not slick; he's not interested in fame; he doesn't have huge breast implants (that we know of); and he wouldn't host the Grammys or appear on Saturday Night Live even if the entire entertainment industry were to start begging like a high school senior on prom night.

Friedrichs never violates the integrity of his subject, and it pays off in a film that is hypnotically engaging. You won't be able to turn away, as Friedrichs manages to ring an incredible amount of suspense out of the mystery of Jandek. In spite of his young age (Friedrichs is only 27), he's managed to make one of the best films of the year. Please go see it, if only to cast your vote for quiet quality in a field that's full of pomp and propaganda.

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