Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen - Benjamin Smoke (2000)


An affectionate, candid depiction of the last days of Benjamin Smoke (born Robert Curtis Dickerson), the gravel-voiced singer with Atlanta punk-blues quintet "Smoke", "Benjamin Smoke" is the result of a long collaboration between idiosyncratic visual poet and lyrical documentarist Jem Cohen, and documentary maker Peter Sillen.

Eschewing voice-over narration, Cohen and Sillen conjure an intelligent, visually hypnotic, and intimate portrait of a maverick original, a self-proclaimed "mouth of the South" with a penchant for cigarettes, alcohol, and cross-dressing. Filmed before Smoke's untimely death from Aids-related Hepatitis C in 1999, the film skilfully weaves filmed reminiscences from colleagues and contemporaries (including rock goddess and "Smoke" muse Patti Smith), performance footage, and sharp, pithy observations from the man himself during his highly unconventional odyssey through American life and music.

Screening as part of the NFT's Jem Cohen season, it is perhaps Cohen's most fully-formed work and certainly several notches above standard music documentary fare. A remarkably honest, occasionally painful work, "Benjamin Smoke" is a fitting epitaph to a remarkable if marginal career.

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