UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Folk on Film: The Story of Vic Chesnutt

The opening shot: a grainy, black-and-white focus of a man in a bathtub. Here lays Vic Chestnutt, seemingly lounging, unselfconsciously nude from the waist down, starting on a long, rambling discourse that is his trademark. Seemingly incoherent, this movie ran for roughly 30 minutes and, from the slow start to the strange, anticlimactic finish we come to know the odd, twisting path his life has taken through paralysis, drug addiction, and, most of all, music.

Silhouetted against the backdrop of the South, “Speed Racer” tours Chesnutt’s path through adolescence with substance abuse and alcoholism, music lessons, and playing for peanuts in Athens, Georgia. Whether it’s playing at the 40-Watt Club or plotting to kill Frank Lorenzo, the head of Eastern Airlines, whom Chesnutt blames for his father’s eventual health decline and death, the profile of a gallows humor, down-to-earth human being emerges.

Although it’s hard not to laugh at Chesnutt’s occasionally raucous and raunchy lyrics, we get a glimpse of deep-set pain and near-despondency when he nearly lost his ability to play guitar at the young age of 18. The car accident that took most of the sensation and motor control in his right hand almost prevented him from ever playing again, until, through sheer stubborn persistence, he glued a slide to his push sling and began playing once again.

Through music and shots of Chesnutt recording alongside his two nieces playing cello and violin, we get to know Chesnutt’s early years and the beginning of his musical career. In the making of his first album, “Little”, we get to hear a serious Michael Stipe discussing how he pushed Chesnutt for ten hours as he worked on recordings, between editing and playing. In the next shot, we see him as he freely mocks Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., saying that all Stipe wanted to do was eat pizza and drink beer while Chesnutt clamored to get work done. This is just another example of the latter’s special blend of sarcasm and psychosis.

With seven albums under his belt, he has shown no sign of stopping any time soon. For the first 10 minutes you want to brush off the bizarre, drugged out diatribe as nothing more than the ramblings of another drugged out artist, but director Pete Sillen manages to give a well-rounded picture of an intelligent man beneath the spacey demeanor.

This is just one of many films being shown at Coolidge Corner Theater and sponsored by WUMB in celebration of 20 years of continued and successful existence, the First Annual Folk Film Festival, featuring films on such characters as Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, the musicians of soundtrack “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and the crew of Wilco.

Before each film, however, there will be a special live performance. In this case, it was Rachel Bissex. “Winner of the coveted Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Award as well as the Wildflower Songwriting Contest in the summer of 2001, with appearances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Kennedy Center, and with the well-received release of her fourth album ‘Between the Broken Lines’ in the same year, Rachel is enjoying a well-earned overnight success,” according to the WUMB website.

I didn’t find Bissex’s vastly overrated show to be anything special. Between alternating breathy spoken-word diatribes and musical spurts, hers was an average blend of angst, discussing her mother, alcoholism, etc. Not only did I have no idea of what she was singing about, but also she worked as a musical billboard, conveniently advertising the sale of her CD between songs.

A last minute addition, she was invited down from Burlington, Vermont by WUMB’s own Dick Pleasants. Bissex tried to get the audience to sing along with her in an attempt to get some participation from the otherwise sedate crowd, but most of it was half-hearted as many were annoyed with having to wait for the true feature: Ladies and Gentleman: Mr. Leonard Cohen.

Drop by for next week’s feature: Monday, October 14 at 9:00pm, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco with musical guests: Fishken & Groves at 8:30pm. Monday, October 21 at 8:00pm is Down From the Mountain an exploration of the artists on the soundtrack of “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” with musical guests Alice Gerrard, Brad Leftwich, and Tom Sauber at 7pm for a special WUMB 20th Anniversary fundraiser. Tickets $50; call (617) 287-6900 for details. Monday, October 28th at 9:00pm features “A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake” with musical guest Bob Franke at 8:30pm.

About the Contributor
MiMi Yeh served as arts editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2001-2002; *2002-2003; 2003-2004 *Evan Sicuranza served as arts editor for Fall 2002 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.