The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack
directed by Aiyana Elliott
(Winstar, 2001)

When he was 15 years old, Jack Elliott ran away from home. He desired to be a cowboy and had the determination to follow his dreams. This plucky son of a Jewish doctor left Brooklyn and became a groom with a rodeo, but only his runaway status was discovered. He returned home to finish school. Jack ended up learning to play guitar, and even touring with his hero -- Woody Guthrie.

This was a rather unlikely beginning for a man who could well have been one of the most famous folk artists of all time. However, Jack lacked the one thing which could have shot him to the top and kept him there: focus. Instead, Bob Dylan "borrowed" his act and became a legend, leaving Jack out in the cold.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack is a fascinating movie, and one which shows off Aiyana Elliott's talents as a producer, writer and director. It took her two years to put this piece together, and the focus of her goals changed during the course of the filming. Aiyana started out to document her father's life story and catch him in action. Once she hit the road with her Dad, the focus went from tracing this cowboy's life to searching for her absent father.

I can't say much for Jack as a father, but he sure can play the guitar. He was a hit over in London in the '60s, when he helped to ignite a folk revolution. Ramblin' Jack Elliott only wanted to ramble and play -- that was all that was really important to him, the life of a cowboy. Roaming from here to there, and just taking in whatever came. Jack did it well. He did it so well in fact that he used up four wives along the route, and traded in what could have been an extremely lucrative and successful career to satisfy his whims.

When Bob Dylan became a living legend, Jack got his feelings hurt, realizing that he'd been passed over in favour of the young protege. This made him bitter, naturally, but he had nobody but himself to blame. If the fame and fortune had of mattered that much, you'd think he'd have found some focus.

Sadly, this adds an element of raw pain to the movie, and validates the opinion that perhaps Ramblin' Jack is a loser with only himself to blame. He could have been a legend, he could have been a loving father, but he was neither of these. Jack was too caught up in his own self and his own experiences to give a damn about anyone but himself. He is a dynamite guitar player and has had innumerable experiences, but to me it takes much more than this to make a man a legend.

This movie does feature some great footage from live performances to home movies from the Guthrie archives. Aiyana has put together an tale which, once begun, must be played to its finish. And as much as I like his music, Rambin' Jack Elliott will always be nothing more than a waste of talent in my mind.

[ by Naomi de Bruyn ]
Rambles: 14 December 2001

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