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Billy Bragg & Wilco - Man in the Sand (The Making of "Mermaid Avenue")

3.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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(Mar 27, 2001)
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Editorial Reviews

The story of how Nora Guthrie and British songwriter and political activist Billy Bragg, together with alternative country band, Wilco brought Woody Guthrie's words to life and created the Grammy-nominated albums Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2.

The life and music of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie (writer of "This Land Is Your Land" and author of Bound for Glory) has influenced every generation that followed him. Thirty years after his death, his daughter Nora Guthrie sought out Billy Bragg to write songs and record Woody's unpublished lyrics. Shot over a period of two years, Man in the Sand follows Billy on a journey that takes him to Okemah, Oklahoma, Woody's birthplace, to Pampa, Texas, where Woody started playing music professionally and New York City where Woody wrote many of his lyrics. Man in the Sand takes you to Billys home in London where Mermaid Avenue begins to take shape. He meets up with Wilco in their hometown of Chicago, travels to record two tracks with Natalie Merchant in Boston and finally on to a Dublin studio where Mermaid Avenue comes together. Man in the Sand reveals the often emotional collaborative process between Billy, Jeff Tweedy and the members of Wilco. Narrated by Nora Guthrie, this 90-minute feature film offers insight into a unique recording project that breathes life into Woody Guthrie's 50-year-old words.

Special Features

  • Five bonus songs (audio only): Billy Bragg demos for Mermaid Avenue: "Birds and Ships," "She Came Along to Us," "I Guess I Planted," "Eisler on the Go," "The Unwelcome Guest"
  • Direct song access
  • Artist discographies

Product Details

  • Actors: Billy Bragg, Natalie Merchant, Wilco, Nora Guthrie, Corey Harris
  • Directors: Kim Hopkins
  • Format: Color, Extra tracks, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Palm Pictures / Umvd
  • DVD Release Date: March 27, 2001
  • Run Time: 89 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00005A1TE
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,714 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
No doubt this disc is going to be positioned in the bins as a documentary on the making of the two Billy Bragg & Wilco "Mermaid Avenue" records. I think there's a bit more to it. In a grand sense, this is a road movie. We have a person on a quest (of sorts). Billy Bragg comes to the United States to get a handle/perspective on his project: The creation and recording of some new songs, built on 40+ year old lyrics from Woody Guthrie that have been barely seen and never heard.

Man In The Sand has a few rough spots. As Bragg does his "Driveabout" in OK and TX, it's both funny and tragic watching him behave like he's on safari in the 1890s, rather than traveling to a not-so-foreign-country in the 1990s. While trying to pay respect to Guthrie, Bragg's cultural/class snobbery is both intact and palpable (along with the irony). The filmmakers get a pat on the back for showing that bit.

The filmmakers do get it wrong in places. I could have done without Bragg's home life, and instead used the time for delving into other areas. First, show more of the music making process. Second, give us more of an explanation of how and why Wilco and Natalie Merchant were brought into the project. Third, if you are going to introduce the idea of creative strife at all, lay it all out. Don't dance around it, then suggest the reason you're going low key is that you don't want to overshadow the music. While we don't know the original intent of the documentary, I've come to expect nothing but top drawer from the BBC. "Man In The Sand" falls short.

But, we were talking about a road movie. A road movie needs the participants to be in love with something elusive, and this movie has got it to spare. It is so obvious that Bragg, Wilco, and Merchant are totally in love with making the music.
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Format: DVD
This documentary resembles a crazy, patchwork quilt, thus, more so than usual, your reactions to it are likely to be shaped by what interests and expectations you bring with you. On the surface, it is a documentary on the making of the two `Mermaid Ave' albums - a project initiated by Nora Guthrie to resurrect a portion of the thousands of lyrics that her father, Woody, had left behind, sans music, and put them before the public. She asked Billy Bragg to take on the project because she felt that his passion and politics was a match to those of her late father. At some point, (left unexplained by the documentary) the band Wilco came into the project as collaborators with Bragg. The film, therefore, has an overabundance of strong characters, all with devoted followings, that it has to try to blend into the mix - Bragg, Wilco, and the ghost of Woody Guthrie as personified through his daughter.
Fans of Wilco are most likely to be disappointed with `Man in the Sand'. As already mentioned, it neglects even to mention how they came into the project, and Bragg gets much more screen time, even though the musical collaboration between them seems to have been fairly evenly split. Still, what we do see of them here shines, both in their studio work and their witty banter with Bragg in discussing the project. Bragg is covered more extensively, and he has an awkward charm that works well in the film, as the personal imperfections that it exposes give a great air of honesty and authenticy.
My primary interest in `Man in the Sand' was neither Billy Bragg nor Wilco, but rather Woody Guthrie and his music. Woody's ghost is the real star here.
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Comment 13 of 14 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: DVD
OK, perhaps the British have a hard time suppressing their contempt for Americans, but isn't it disingenuous to let it show through in a documentary centering around Woody Guthrie?
I enjoyed much of this documentary in spite of the limited talents of the filmmakers, as Mr. Bragg, Mr. Guthrie, and Wilco were all compelling enough to hold my attention.
But it is rather ignorant of the filmmakers to assume that those wishing to see such a document would have little to no interest in Wilco, who were more than minor participants in the project. Instead, they attempt to present typical British tabloid journalism, trying to recreate "Let It Be" by fomenting a minor dispute between the songwriters.
The best parts of this, for me, were the tidbits of Jeff Tweedy singing Guthrie's words, but they were scarce. The filmmakers never even said anything about how Wilco were brought into the project to begin with.
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By A Customer on April 6, 2001
Format: VHS Tape
the premise of "man in the sand," namely the making of the two mermaid avenue sessions, could have been a really interesting rock documentary, like "gimme shelter," "don't look back," or "meeting people is easy," to name a few. what is great about this picture are the bits of rehearsals and footages of recording sessions. jeff tweedy of wilco is just breathtaking in these brief moments. but the attempt at fusing a documentary about woodie guthrie & the trials, tribulations, and inspirations of making the two stunning albums just doesn't work. i would have preferred a telling of woodie guthrie through these live recording and collaborative moments alone: to let the tremendous creative energy and the tensions that arose in the meeting of two great artists (wilco and billy) speak for woodie. there are many allusions here to the strife behind the scenes, of different views on what the big picture of woodie guthrie's music should be. this movie fails to articulate what these conflicts were. how did we get such gems through such an overwhelming process?
to end with some good observations: the performances here are tremendous and well worth keeping in your library if you are a fan of wilco or billy. again: jeff tweedy is breathtaking.
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