Benjamin Smoke (2000)

Genres - Music  |   Sub-Genres - Biography, Sociology  |   Release Date - Jul 21, 2000 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 73 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Fred Beldin

In every college town, bohemian enclave, or music scene there's an artist like Benjamin. He's the drug-addled old timer with a thousand stories of decadent nights and wild shows from "back in the day," the local eccentric who's been making noise for so long that he's an institution in his community, though obscure outside the city limits. So even if Benjamin Smoke is meant as a testament to one unique man's individuality, it also says something about his forgotten compadres everywhere, the people who live out strange lives and create music or art with no eye toward a career or immortality. Benjamin is a fascinating character, full of inarticulate wisdom and craggy humor, matter-of-fact about his lifelong drug abuse, HIV status, and penchant for drag. Languidly stretched out across sofas and beds, he sucks on cigarettes and spins great anecdotes about the past that seem to be equal parts hyperbole and genuine memory. His work with the band Smoke is highlighted with rehearsal and live footage, documenting the group's avant-garde blend of blues, folk, and rock, making an eerie bed for Benjamin's hoarse, conversational poetry. Directors Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen have crafted a loving tribute to him that doesn't ignore or exploit the unsavory elements of his life, and some of the film's most poetic moments take place outside of Benjamin's home in the decaying landscape of Cabbagetown, GA. Street evangelists preach unintelligible gospel, dirty children race go-karts in dusty vacant lots, and empty factories rot in the distance. As a gay drag queen with a passion for punk rock and amphetamines, Benjamin is an alien presence in this community, but it's clearly where he belongs.