The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack
2000, NR, 107 min. Directed by Aiyana Elliott.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Oct. 20, 2000
With equal effectiveness on both counts Ramblin' Jack Elliott's daughter seeks to convince us that her famous dad is (a) a great musician, and (b) a sorry excuse for a parent. The first point is obvious to those old enough to remember Ramblin' Jack from his 1960s salad days as a staple of folk-music festivals and acknowledged role model for Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Neuwirth, and others. Ms. Elliott's film is, in part, an effort to reverse his slow slide into obscurity. On this level it's an unqualified success. With admirable skill and diligence, she pulls together home movies, old TV footage, testimonials from other artists of the day, and her own personal insights to reaffirm the old man's stature in American music history. To hear Arlo Guthrie stating that Ramblin' Jack Elliott, not Dylan, was the truest disciple of Woody Guthrie is powerful stuff indeed. And the generous, well-balanced selection of Elliott's concert footage allows us to see for ourselves the humor, rough charisma, and unimpeachable authenticity of the artist himself. Unfortunately, the daughter has a secondary agenda all too common among family biographers of famous persons: airing out their personal beefs against the subject. In essence, it's the timeless complaint that dad's art consumed all his paternal love, and that his global family of friends and colleagues meant more to him than his own flesh and blood. But am I alone in feeling that such criticisms are unfair and naive? To some degree, all serious artists make a conscious decision to siphon time and emotional energy away from their near and dears and into their work. Most are quite honest about this choice. Jack Elliott certainly was. I mean, it's not as if he fraudulently billed himself as Nurturin' Jack. As many of the director's interview subjects kindly but pointedly remind her, the Ramblin' Jack Elliotts of the world have to be loved on their own terms or not at all. Ideal though a Cliff Huxtable/Bob Dylan hybrid might be in theory, few such animals actually exist. For all my sympathy for Aiyana Elliott's wounded feelings, I still have to side with the guy who dryly commented, “Given that we had a choice between either one more great family guy or one Ramblin' Jack Elliott, I feel like we got a really great deal. What do you think?” (The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack previously screened in Austin during SXSW Film 2000.)