Benjamin Smoke, 2000
A lot of people end up finding what they think is a kindred spirit in an icon. Perhaps just as many find it in someone who is prophetic or a poet. The icon can bring comfort when embracing the wonder and beauty of art, and the poet can expose the haunting and sometimes transgressive side of life.
Sometimes you can find both of these qualities in the same person. It’s the only way I can explain the popularity of folks like Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg. Benjamin Smoke is a documentary that does just that, but for someone who never got the chance to assimilate…and maybe never would have anyway.
The film follows Robert Dickerson (referred to as Benjamin), a tragic musician whose voice and lyrics bring to mind Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The band he fronted, Smoke, was infamous in Cabbagetown, GA. A town that, as Benjamin explains, was always separate from Atlanta and riddled with poverty. He also explains that this poverty allowed for all the good and wonderful things in life: hustlers, inter-breeding, drugs, and sniffing glue.
It’s soon evident that the filmmakers didn’t need much to capture Benjamin’s quiet, yet extraordinary life. Putting him in front of a camera in an empty room was enough to make a bold impression. However, thanks to truly masterful direction and awe-inspiring editing by Nancy Roach, something quite miraculous was captured. A small legend had his story told, and I am forever changed by the tale.
Benjamin’s poetic musings offer a portrait of a town where prog and punk music was influential. Bands like The Rock *A* Teens and Seersucker were formed there. Outside of the town, reflections on the musical process, and experiences in bands, Benjamin was also candid about his homosexuality. The latter detailing a lifetime of cross-dressing since childhood, and his inner-conflict of staying quiet about having HIV.
A few members of the 12-piece Opal Foxx Quartet (Benjamin included), later formed the band Smoke. The group had a strong presence in Cabbagetown and eventually became popular with certain larger performers. Patti Smith, who saw the group during their East Coast tour, recalls the impact of their music.
Their albums, Heaven On A Popsicle Stick and Another Reason To Fast, were well received and prompted the tour. A pivotal night for the group was when they opened for Patti Smith on Dec. 20, 1997.
This was fitting, since Smith’s album Horses was Benjamin’s introduction to alternative music and he idolized her. Smith later wrote a song for Benjamin’s epitaph called “Death Singing.” It can be heard on the album Peace And Noise. Other musicians have since done songs about Benjamin, including Cat Power.
Footage of Smoke’s shows and rehearsals in the documentary are plentiful and powerful. It makes it easy to understand the difference between documenting a concert and really capturing the magic of a live performance.
Anyone can stick up a camera and capture a visual memento to post online. To embrace the catharsis that comes from indulging in someone else’s pain and joy is a whole different art. Especially while finding things in their work that speak to you and others. It’s a feat that should never be underestimated.
Benjamin Smoke is a cinematic love letter from the directors, with fine examples of still photography as well. It’s not just about one man and his music, but the town and people that had an effect on his life. It doesn’t ask you to turn up your nose, nor does it glorify the squalor or degradation of the subject. It simply tells a tale.
It’s a film that has the power to expose a private and heart-wrenching history, yet still manages to leave you feeling grateful. Grateful to be alive, or to have had your own misgivings; to simply enjoy whatever it is that you can. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that made me laugh and cry so much, or offered such tender inspiration. Recommended to fans of beat poetry, alternative music, and tragic films like Gummo, Billy the Kid (2007), and Fiona.
Originally published for Amoeba Music’s “Movies We Like” blog, Nov. 25th, 2015
Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen
“My, hero worship, intact and indiscreet…” – lyric from Luke Perry’s Feet