You may never have heard of Morphine. They were an anomaly in the alt-rock era: a band that didn't have a guitar. They played what the band dubbed "low-rock": noirish, jazzy-bluesy music made with a minimalistic amalgam of two-string slide bass, baritone sax and drums, topped by the neo-Beat stylings of singer Mark Sandman. Morphine had a large cult following and toured the world constantly, but never really cracked the big-time. So maybe Sandman, charismatic as he was, seems like an unlikely subject of a documentary. But then rock documentaries are changing.
Early in the rock era, only the very biggest bands, like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, were extensively documented. Film stock was expensive, the cameras were too bulky for many situations, and there simply weren't many venues for what they'd shoot anyway — not too many places were keen on airing a 90-minute profile of Herman's Hermits.
But now there's an ample supply of documentaries because there's an ample supply of raw material. The period covered by rock docs has entered the late '80s and early '90s, when inexpensive, portable technology enabled even the most obscure bands to document virtually every moment of their existence. MTV and other music media also provide a deep pool of archival footage. Along with affordable high-quality video cameras and consumer-friendly digital video editing software, this has revolutionized the rock doc.
So now we have the technology. The question is, what to do with it? Most docs take the easy route and tell a band's story in chronological order. But that's not always the most illuminating way of doing it. Which is where the upcoming rock doc Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story comes in.
Made by filmmakers Robert G. Bralver, Jeff Broadway and David Ferino, Cure for Pain is cobbled together from pan-and-scanned photos and postcards, low-fi interview footage blown up so large that it looks like it was shot on a surveillance camera, music videos, pages from Sandman's mother's published memoir, home movies, TV news clips, and concert footage, as well as newly shot interviews with contemporaries such as Les Claypool, Josh Homme, Mike Watt, and Ben Harper, as well as various bandmates, critics and family members.
That's all standard stuff, but Cure for Pain isn't constructed as the usual beginning-to-end tale. First, there's the rise of Sandman's career, starting with some basic family background material. Sandman wandered the globe for six or seven years, from Alaska to Belize, then returned to Boston to found the band Treat Her Right. Then there's Morphine's ascent which, after a digression about their unusual instrumentation, culminates in "people going crazy and selling out shows," as their manager so timelessly puts it.
But then after 34 minutes the film loops back around to Sandman's early life again. And that's when things get interesting. Turns out that his two younger brothers both died very young, Roger from natural causes, Jon from an unexplained fall from a window. Sandman was particularly distraught about Jon's death; his mother says "He really broke down. A lot. I ached for him." On top of it all, Sandman was alienated from his parents, who didn't understand their misfit son's career choice. It's like seeing a play from the audience and then seeing it again from backstage, behind the scenes, and it elevates Cure for Pain from a mere editing job and into something meaningful.
As Sandman's longtime girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian (full disclosure: she is a friend of mine and gave me a DVD screener of the film) says: his brothers' death thrust into relief the fact that "you're alive, what are you going to do?" Sandman funneled his grief, as well as a lust for life, into a torrent of music; as his mother says, he was determined "to be somebody special." Suddenly, the enigmatic Sandman snaps into focus. He was famously evasive in interviews — and now we realize he was protecting himself. His songs become more autobiographical than they first seem. His three-man band, as several interviewees suggest, was a kind of surrogate for his relationship with his two departed brothers — bandmate Dana Colley even played sax, just like Sandman's late brother Jon. And now the title of the film (and the band's name) makes all the sense in the world.
With his striking Easter Island statue looks, Sandman radiated old-school cool, coming off like a laconic Jewish Bogart. As the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dicky Barrett notes, "There was real magic to the guy." The movie actually helps to convey that ineffable quality. In fact, Cure for Pain begins to limn the very basis of cool — as Sandman's parents note, he flouted conventions and yet needed "unconditional love and acceptance." That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
It's tempting to say that it all leads up to Sandman's fatal heart attack on stage at a festival show in the remote Italian hill town of Palestrina on a hot July night in 1999; the incident comprises the final twenty minutes of the film. But his death doesn't seem to be the culmination of anything — it just... happened. The film makes no mention of the reason for Sandman's heart attack. We are given no clue, kind of a glaring omission for a documentary about a person's life. And yet that might actually be better, since now we're just left with the bare fact of his passing, and that leads to one of the key points of the movie.
"It forced people to look at each other and celebrate the fact that we had each other," says Morphine drummer Billy Conway, "and we had a family and a community, and we had each other to get through losing him." So beyond what it has to say about Sandman, Cure for Pain also makes a point that perhaps not everyone realizes: around just about every band, there is a family, a circle of friends, lovers, crew members and biological relatives bound tightly together. The bigger the band, the more closely the wagons circle. Sometimes people join the family by accident. The hard rocking Queens of the Stone Age could not be more unlike Morphine but fate decreed that they should be the next band onstage after Sandman died. The description of the instant bond between QOTSA and the surviving members of Morphine is incredibly moving. The testimony of the festival's still youthful organizers, sweet, soulful people, might bring you to tears.
Plenty of documentaries succeed in telling a story. But very few succeed at portraying a character. But more than just a portrait of one particular musician, Cure for Pain imparts the larger realities of musical life and the bittersweet nature of love and loss.
Cure for Pain will hit the festival circuit soon.