The melancholy and uplifting life story of Robert Dickerson AKA Benjamin Smoke is luminously filmed in this compelling documentary. Smoke, a haggard southern drag queen singer, with a punk appearance, the voice of Tom Waits and the spirit of a philosopher tells his life to the camera through off-hand comments, crackpot commentary and tale-telling. Smoke’s ramblings on music, misbehavior, and growing up southern and gay in his hometown Atlanta suburb of Cabbagetown, are punctuated by breathtaking imagery of the southern locale. Director Jem Cohen, an experimental film pioneer who has worked with REM, Fugazi, and Peter Sillen, and who directed Speed Racer, the story of another southern eccentric rocker, Vic Chestnut, brings a well-practiced richness to Smoke’s story. Illustrating Smoke’s local stardom, his struggles with homosexuality and drugs and his eventual contraction of AIDS, the film follows Smoke’s abstract, dementia-tinged existence. As Smoke’s AIDS gets worse, his music becomes more redemptive. The climax of the story comes when Smoke meets his lifelong inspiration and idol, Patti Smith, and performs the opening at one of her shows. The film begins with the text from a Patti Smith poem about Smoke, and ends with a solitary shot of her dramatically reading the poem: a good way to show the far-ranging affect of the small but extraordinary life of Benjamin Smoke. —Rotten Tomatoes
Jem Alan Cohen (born 1962) is an award-winning New York City-based filmmaker known for his observational portraits of urban landscapes, blending of media formats (16mm, Super 8, video) and collaborations with music artists.
Cohen was born in Kabul, Afghanistan where his father was working for the U.S. Agency for Information and Development. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1984, with a concentration on painting and photography. Jem never attended a film school.
Cohen found the mainstream Hollywood film industry incompatible with his sociopolitical and artistic views. By applying the DIY ethos of Punk Rock into his filmmaking approach, he crafted a distinct style in his films through various cheap formats of Super 8mm, 16mm, and video. In an interview with The Lamp, Cohen said, “…it’s very inspiring to me, to see people kind of take something outside of the industry, outside of the music industry, and it gave me something of a template to work in film outside of… read more