Kurt Markus is a photographer by trade, not a documentarian, which may explain why his John Mellencamp tour film It’s About You doesn’t hold together well as a piece of journalism. Shot on Super 8 during Mellencamp’s 2009 summer jaunt with Bob Dylan—during which Mellencamp recorded the album No Better Than This in old churches and historic studios across the country—It’s About You doesn’t try to tell any kind of story about who Mellencamp is and what he’s been through during his long career as a rock star. And Mellencamp himself rarely speaks in the film. He’s seen mainly behind a microphone, singing old and new songs, while Markus and his lean crew—including his son, Ian—capture what they can in the limited available light. Their grainy images are frequently striking, and It’s About You’s sound is relatively clean and dynamic, but there’s nothing remotely resembling a narrative here.
In the absence of interviews or archival footage, Markus offers his diary-like thoughts about life on the road. He ruminates on the Larry McMurtry book he’s reading, shares stories about the Underground Railroad, laments how America has changed, and describes how difficult it is to find a good radio station these days. Some of Markus’ thoughts on decaying Americana are evocative, but most are clichéd, overblown paeans to “authenticity,” apparently meant to make the audience more kindly disposed toward his project, which is essentially a home movie.
Markus does capture some real moments of magic, particularly when Mellencamp is in Sun Studios with Marc Ribot and T Bone Burnett, recording songs in a single take around one microphone. And though Dylan doesn’t appear, It’s About You offers charming footage of Cornel West dancing backstage, which Markus promptly sullies by pontificating in voiceover. But the director’s decision to stay off the tour bus—“This isn’t a reality-TV show,” he sniffs at one point—means It’s About You largely lacks the intimacy Markus was striving to achieve. “You shouldn’t get too close on old people,” Mellencamp jokes at the start of the film, referring to the camera. Markus seems to have taken that advice as a guiding principle.