Journey of Dreams (DVD)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Anyone in a focus group suggesting that a popular rock band should consist of just drums, baritone saxophone and a two-string bass predominantly played with a slide would probably be laughed out of most rooms. But Morphine’s success in that unusual, ultra-stripped down trio format proved that less is more. And it didn’t hurt that in frontman/singer/songwriter Mark Sandman, they had a driving force with talent, vision and an uncompromising sense of what he wanted to achieve.
Sadly his dream was cut down when he suddenly succumbed to a massive heart attack on stage in Rome on July 3, 1999. And while this 90-minute documentary on the band’s, and by extension Sandman’s, career arrives over 15 years after its untimely demise, the story, and more importantly Morphine’s distinctive, idiosyncratic music, remains riveting.
Born out of the ashes of Sandman’s first major label effort, the unfairly under-the-radar blues based Treat Her Right (their almost hit “I Think She Likes Me” can be considered an early blueprint for Morphine with harmonica substituting for sax), Morphine’s “low rock” peeled away anything extraneous — including guitar — leaving a skeletal rhythm based, subtle noir vibe, perfect for Sandman’s dark, talk-sung, bone dry, vocals and eyebrow raising lyrics that shifted from hypnotically vague to humorously wry.
Producer and director Mark Shuman captures the group’s unlikely arc from its modest cultish Boston beginnings, to a growing worldwide success in a remarkably short span, all without the help of hit singles or much commercial attention. Lively, articulate and informative interviews with the band members (drummer Billy Conway, saxist Dana Colley who reads from his diary chronicling Morphine’s tenure, and even some archival ones with Sandman), along with personal recollections from their loyal back line of sound man, agent, tour manager and lawyer, move the narrative along at a brisk pace. Testimony from other musicians close to the trio such as Henry Rollins and Los Lobos’ reedman Steve Berlin, provides fascinating and essential hues to an already colorful story. Sandman’s girlfriend also offers enlightening facts about the notoriously private frontman.
The film is not perfect; a considerable amount of — arguably too much — time is spent recounting Sandman’s final show, nothing is mentioned about Colley and Conway’s post Morphine work including Twinemen (which reflected the same basic sound), and there are no full song performances included in either the body of the movie or the half hour of extras that provides extended interviews with the participants. Also the band’s videos are MIA.
Still, this is a beautifully edited, smartly constructed project that is clearly a labor of love for its producer/director Mark Shuman. Although there was a previous doc about Sandman’s life (2011’s Cure for Pain-The Mark Sandman Story), this is likely the last word on Sandman and Morphine, a group who deserves to be rediscovered and credited with creating some of the most inventive, moving and uniquely edgy/dreamy music in an impossible to pigeonhole genre they created and still own.