Monday, April 27, 2009

Song Sung Blue

Greg Kohs delivers his first film, a documentary that follows the lives of Mike Sardina, a very good Neil Diamond tribute act, performing as Lightning, who falls for Claire , a big blond with a big voice and a Patsy Cline repertoire. Together they are Lightning and Thunder, as they become Milwaukee celebrities in a career that hits its highpoint in an appearance before 30,000 fans at Summerfest, with Eddie Vedder singing along.

Offstage they sometimes seem like two goofballs. They don't have much time for their kids from prior marriages (two of whom live with them.) They live in a small house, made even smaller by clutter. They eat a balanced diet of Cheetos and cola and have a detailed career plan - make it big enough to move to Vegas. When middle age spread hits they address the chain smoking.

When Thunder is struck by a car while gardening in her own front yard, she loses part of her leg. This is the real beginning of Song Sung Blue, but Director Greg Kohs successfully incorporates so much material from performance tapes and the Sardina's older home footage that it seems like the beginning of the second act. The accident produces some instant publicity, but it ends up costing them gigs as pain, medication and money problems strain their marriage. Just as they seem to be rebooting for a life where they can survive by performing in small venues, Lightning's heart begins to give out. Even a quintuple by-pass can't keep him off the stage for long, but, it's only a temporary reprieve. Lightning's death, and a very touching gift from Eddie Vedder, give the film an emotional climax and an ending.

Through it all, Lightning and Thunder have a certain appeal. Sometimes it's the fascination of watching a train bear down on a school bus stuck at a rail crossing, but the film is not a freak show. Their love of performing and their love for each other is indefatigable and sometimes winning. Mike's illness also provokes Kohs into finally revealing Mike's history as a Viet Nam veteran and recovering addict, a man who went 30 years without touching heroin or alcohol despite a life spent in bars and clubs. Mike's inner strength isn't the only surprise. Step-daughter Rachel, who is consistently portrayed as a whining, ungrateful dope, writes and delivers a shockingly articulate eulogy at Mike's funeral.

Song Sung Blue has its moments. Mike's Neil Diamond covers are fun and very well-done. The arrival of Eddie Vedder's gift is a moment so exceptionally apt it's hard to believe it's in a documentry. However, As Good As News does not recommend the film for most audiences. Song Sung Blue spends the first 75 of its 85 minutes focused on the most cinematic foibles of the Sardina clan. Their love of each other and drive to perform makes them somewhat interesting, but doesn't generate as much empathy as it could. Mike's grit and Rachel's smarts didn't happen overnight in real life. The deeper character revelation packed into the last few minutes should have begun earlier in the film, the whole family would have been more believable, more like us, if we had seen some of those extra dimensions from the start.

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