I have to think that Robert Bralver and David Ferino were geniuses for choosing Mark Sandman as the topic for a documentary. Not only did they have a chance to cover a unique and deep subject in Mr. Sandman, they got to remind the world about a musical talent that has a real story to tell. For those of you that can’t remember the name, he was the guy behind the band known as Morphine. And so we come to Cure for Pain.
The documentary is smart because it opens perfectly: the tune of “Buena” kicks in, and as we hear this amazing song, we get audio/video of quick interview snippets. Throughout, you see still shots of the band and its bassist, Mark Sandman. You also see concert footage, clips from Conan, John Stewart, and Kurt Loder on MTV. In seconds, you know what the topic is, and why someone would find it important.
And if you’re not moved by the words from a Vanity Fair reporter or various musicians, you have that awesome song playing the whole time. That great bluesy, moody tune can sell the documentary all by itself.
Just as it’s all sinking in and the song is ending, you get the news reports of Mark Sandman’s death. Clips from one newscast after another: Sandman’s gone, he died on-stage, in concert, in Italy.
I was so taken with the choice to open in this way, as the interviewees rightly point out what was so confusing about Morphine – how do you have a band that’s just a drummer, a two-string bass, and a man playing dual saxophones? What kind of band is that?
We move on to family interviews, and a look into Mark’s early days. It’s a good shift: from professional respect and perspective to details about what he was like as a person. I liked seeing all the postcards from Sandman’s travels.
Like a good book, Cure for Pain is set up with a solid sense of “chapters” that open and close throughout the film. His family reveals that he returned home after getting sick in Brazil, and then we’re with his fellow musicians who reveal what Sandman did after getting back to the US. This segment is very exciting, Morphine’s music playing in the background as people describe the person that they knew.
So what’s the upshot? Mark Sandman wasn’t what I expected, and I like him even more for what I’ve learned. This is when we’re introduced to Mark’s earlier band, Treat Her Right, as well as the beautiful girl who he pursued. Seeing her today and looking back on her youth is… it’s incredibly touching.
What’s really amazing is all the archival footage. Sure, the film is full of slow pans across the page of a newspaper or magazine, but there are tons of video interviews in this film. Interviews come from abroad, as well as the US, some mere conversation, while others are recordings of Mark performing, both with with Treat Her Right as well as Morphine. Some of the clips are incredibly grainy or blurry, but it’s still an incredible collection.
A lot of people saw Morphine as a call-back to the “beat” movement. It’s an amazing observation, as it fits the wandering lifestyle that we’ve already learned about Sandman up to this point. And it’s not just people talking – you hear it in their music, this deep sound that feels just right for… I dunno, an adventure in a swamp.
Above all, Morphine songs have this low, primal feeling that evokes how down life can be, before kicking into gear to bring you back up. I don’t know how good I am at describing music, but, simply put: it starts out as a deep funk which becomes thrilling.
Throughout CfP all, the viewer gets the impression that Mark Sandman was a restless, intelligent soul who loved to play with sound. He wanted to succeed, but didn’t care much about money. He was generous in praising his bandmates, fellow musicians, and the people who inspired him. And he did all that while sounding so humble-yet-confident that he pretty much came off like a token “cool cat.”
When we start to hear about Morphine’s success, the audience is bounced back and forth between footage from the time and new interviews. There’s a clever montage showing movies that used their music, including 2009′s The Hangover, as well as Get Shorty and Beavis and Butthead Do America. We also see an old interview with a Dreamworks exec who talks about signing the band.
After this wealth of information and opinion and insight, a new phase of the story begins. Suddenly, we’re back with Sandman’s family and we start to learn about the family tragedies that shaped his life.
It’s one of the most simple-yet-stunning cinematic tricks I’ve ever seen: during the credits, we saw a photograph of four siblings, along with family videos of the kids playing together. From this point on, we learn how Sandman’s brothers died, and we learn about each new loss, we’re returned to the photograph, watching as the kids from it disappear Back to the Future-style. It’s such a great effect that I didn’t really want to spoil it, but it’s really worth highlighting here.
The interviewees are smart choices: Josh Hommes of Queens of the Stoe Age, Ben Harper, Les Claypool (Primus), Chris Ballew (Presidents of the USA). These are all real music professionals, (I’m a QOTSA fan) and it’s hard to ignore the type of praise coming from these accomplished musicians…
Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story is an exceptional documentary, done in a style I’ve never quite seen before. I was surprised and pleased to hear the music run throughout most of the picture. It not only keeps you engaged, it gets across a lot of what the doc should be informing you about; I was so impressed to see the music used to heavily without every being intrusive. The interviews are excellent, but, above all, the stories you’ll learn about this musician are excellent, too.
Cure is now available through many online sources, including iTunes, Vudu, Xbox, CinemaNow,
and YouTube. Whether you’re a music-lover or a fan of Morphine or you just want to see an entertaining biographical documentary, it’ll be worth every penny.
[UPDATE: sorry, but a super-old draft was published by accident. It's been about 2-3 hours since this post went live, and I just fixed the problem. ]