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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Southlander - Diary of a Desperate Musician
Southlander - Diary of a Desperate Musician
Music Video Distributors // Unrated // October 14, 2003
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Robert Spuhler | posted July 30, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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Somewhere in Southlander lies a character study, an experimental film about the loneliness and desperation of trying to "make it" as a musician. Somewhere in Southlander is the foundation for interesting characters. But instead, the audience is treated to stoner jokes, awkward dialogue and characters that lack any ring of truth.

The plot in Southlander is, at best, a distraction: Chance (Rory Cochran), a struggling keyboard player, finally lands a touring gig based on his new keyboard, a 1969 Moletron. But someone steals it from his car after he spends the evening with the lead singer, Rocket (singer/songwriter Beth Orton). His quest to get the keyboard back takes him through the "Southlander" newspaper and leads him to all sorts of "off-beat" Angelinos.

For a film shot for next-to-nothing on digital video, there is an amazing amount of quasi-stars on display. Alt-rock musician Beck is a given; director/writer Steve Hanft played in his band at various points and directed videos for several of his singles, including Loser. Orton and Hank Williams III also make small appearances, while Cochran ("CSI: Miami") and Laura Prepon ("That 70's Show") cross over from television.

In addition, the musicians that appear in the film contribute to an excellent soundtrack, as does the late Elliott Smith.

But the "script," as it were (many of the scenes were improvised) is anywhere from barely passable to straight-out awful. Larry David and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" it certainly is not.

What is probably supposed to carry Southlander is the characters. So much of the film is organized episodically: Rory drives somewhere, meets new weird L.A. person, gets next clue as to where to find the keyboard. But the performances by most of the "characters" are forced and showy, not grounded in any sense of reality. There are really weird people here in southern California – I've met them – but they are not consciously weird. They have their own motivations and goals. These characters do not.

Also, while the difficulties in producing a feature-length film are numerous and tough to overcome, the production values for Southlander are distracting. Bright light washes out color in so many shots, all on screen graphics are illegible and the sound picks up distracting background noise and room tone.

The DVD

Video:

The video transfer of Southlander is a good example of good technical DVD work on horrible, horrible original elements. Most of the time, poor original elements come from age or storage in bad conditions. In this case, Southlander is just not a technically competent film. Sound:

The music comes across very well on the DVD's 5.1 soundtrack, though the 2.0 track is competent as well. The dialogue comes out as well, even though much of it laid over music.

Extras:

An interesting feature-length commentary with Hanft and writer/actor Ross Harris explains some of the obstacles of low-budget filmmaking. In between saying hi to their friends in the film, they do a respectable job explaining what we're seeing and why we're seeing it. We find out that the scripted portions of the film came together in three weeks, which makes sense – as does Hanft's explanation/apology, "I never worked with too many professional actors before."

There's also a great deal of unused footage included, most notably full versions of songs by Beck and Orton. Many of the scenes go a long way towards fleshing out the story, but come off as stagy and unnatural. It's almost as if Hanft and company had a choice to make in editing: Have the story make sense, or go with something more "atmospheric," less coherent but with better footage. Neither way would have made the film work, but the latter made it more interesting.

Final Thoughts:

For hardcore fans of the musicians that appear in Southlander, the film may be worth a rental to see the artists in a new arena. But for everyone else, there isn't much here worth salvaging.

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