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'Benjamin Smoke'

Different drummer: 'Benjamin Smoke' uncovers a punk with a passion

Friday, September 29, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

When we first see and hear the title character in "Benjamin Smoke," it instantly registers that he is performing -- but as himself, not just as one of the parts that add up to the whole: drug addict, drag queen, Southern poor boy, societal dropout, tragic infirm, musician of such striking aspect that Patti Smith wrote a poem about him. It asks, "Have you seen death singing?"


RATING: Unrated; contains vulgar language and mature themes.

STARRING: Robert Dickerson, Patti Smith.

DIRECTORS: Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen.

CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


The opportunity, which is worth catching for those of such a bent, presents itself this weekend at the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. "Benjamin Smoke," which plays this weekend only, allows us to experience the man who was born Robert Dickerson, grew up as a towheaded lad, heard Smith on the radio as a youth and realized music could be "different," realized he was different -- a queerness that transcends sexual identity.

He became, simply, Benjamin. Smoke is the name of the spare but hypnotic band of cello, banjo, trumpet, guitar and drum with whom he performs.

He tells us of sweeping broken glass at the infamous New York punk club CBGBs, of moving to Atlanta's lowdown Cabbagetown section, of dressing in drag to front the Opal Foxx Quartet, of helping the neighborhood kids build Go Karts.

The most remarkable aspect of his tale may be the voice that tells it, a squawk of Southern growl that floats us along its stream of consciousness. It blacks out from time to time as Benjamin gropes for a word or a name or just lets the sentence drop off the face of the earth.

The passion of his voice gives way to the sweet pain of his singing, perfectly accompanied by the buzz and twang of Smoke's instruments.

Directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen capture Benjamin's aura in their visuals, which alternate between black-and-white shots of Cabbagetown that make it look like something from an ancient photo, and color sequences that show off the random furnishings of Benjamin's house and the straw-colored light mentioned in Smith's poem.

Transition shots of things going by in fast motion portend times that are a-changin' and probably not for the better. Benjamin seems to be one of those individuals who could exist only at a certain place in a certain time. Cohen and Sillen make us glad they were there to capture it.

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