Film Review – Vincent: A Life in Color; Song Sung Blue
I’m not much of a documentary watcher. I don’t dislike them, but it just doesn’t occur to me to choose a documentary when I want to watch a movie. This is why I need film festivals: to show me what I’m missing. This year for Ebertfest, Roger Ebert chose two documentaries: Vincent: A Life in Color and Song Sung Blue (both from 2008). Though they weren’t shown together, the films greatly compliment each other. They are both small, independent productions from filmmakers who simply felt curiosity after encountering their subject, and knew there was a story to tell. They are stories of people who seek the spotlight; who feel most like themselves when they are giving a performance. They are movies about choosing to live life in an unconventional way, and never being sorry for it.
The subject of Vincent: A Life in Color is Vincent P. Falk (which goes on my list of great names of all time). A fixture of the riverside scene in Chicago, Vincent is known to natives as the guy who constantly walks around in garish, brightly colored suits, standing on various bridges waving at riverboat tours. He gives what he calls his fashion show, which essentially consists of him twirling around, whipping off his crazy suit jacket of the day, and swinging it around his head as the boat captains blow horns at him and tourists wave. He does this multiple times each day, until the boats stop for the winter.
The film opens with interview snippets from various Chicago natives who have seen Vincent going about this odd routine. No one seems to know what his real story is, or why he does what he does. They know he seems like a weird guy, but maybe not quite in the same way as other characters who hang out by the river. They’ve noticed his strange, barely open eyes. The endless parade of shocking suits seems to knock out the possibility that he is homeless. A journalist shares how he used to wonder if Vincent was some sort of extremely eccentric trust funder.
No assumption that anyone has about Vincent turns out to be true. We follow the story of how the many defining elements of his life—including his major vision impairment, a result of glaucoma he’s had since childhood—led him to the place he is now. The film lets us hypothesize a bit about Vincent before revealing his true circumstances, which are certainly not what you would imagine of a man who spends his free time down by the river. He is neither homeless nor an eccentric trust funder. Filmmaker Jennifer Burns, in a clear but never pushy way, asks the viewer to question the assumptions they might make about anyone based on superficial evidence. At the same time, the film impresses in its willingness to question Vincent’s motivation for calling such attention to himself, and to be comfortable with never reaching a definitive conclusion. What he does makes him happy; that much we know. Ultimately, the film made me feel a bit happier about life as well.
The closing film of Ebertfest was Song Sung Blue. This film—as was said multiple times at the festival, by multiple people—is a true love story. We meet Mike Sardina, a musician who makes a living as a Neil Diamond impersonator (a very convincing Neil Diamond impersonator), and goes by the stage name Lightning. He happens to fall in love with a woman name Claire, who sings Patsy Cline songs. Together, they are Lightning and Thunder, an act that was quite well known around Milwuakee in the 90s. Filmmaker Greg Kohs described in his panel discussion how he encountered the act by chance, really believing he heard Neil Diamond performing some secret show. After realizing his mistake, he decided to do a project about the duo. As with so many great true stories, he never could have known the twists his tale would take.
The story of Mike and Claire Sardina and their family engrossed me totally. I quite literally laughed or cried my way through every scene. As with the story of Vincent, this film is very much about what motivates a person to live the life of a performer. What is it that makes one wish to draw that kind of attention, all the time? Mike and Claire truly want to entertain people, but their attitudes are not altruistic. They are talented, yet they never strive to perform original music or break out of their impersonator roles. The intensely dramatic, tragic, and inspiring turns that their story takes affected the audience at Ebertfest deeply.
Vincent Falk and Claire Sardina were both guests at the festival. When Vincent stood up at the Song Sung Blue panel to make a comment to Claire, the entire theater buzzed with excitement as the worlds we’d just encountered collided.
It is doubly fortunate for me that I saw these films at Ebertfest, not only because I would not pick them out on my own, but because I probably wouldn’t have had another opportunity: neither film has a distribution deal at this time. When asked by an audience member after the screening what she wanted viewers to take away from the film, Claire Sardina crowed “Distribution!” to sincere, sympathetic laughs.
You can get more information about these films at their websites: vincentalifeincolor.com and songsungblue.apresentando.