For whatever reason, this SXSW was my year of documentaries. Maybe it’s because I like the journalistic element of them, and maybe it’s because they’ve put on show histories, cultures and politics in a way that I’d never seen before. In any case, I’m glad I got to see Show Me The Picture: The Jim Marshall Story because it’s not something I’d usually gravitate towards. My experience with music documentaries goes about as far as Wattstax or This is Spinal Tap (the former is a gem of socio-political discourse in 1970s America; the latter is plain silly). So when I went into Show Me The Picture (because I’d just finished a screening in the adjacent theater) I was a blank slate. Afterwards, I was glad I got to see it — at its world premiere, no less — because it inspired me about the world of arts and culture in a way that other films this festival hadn’t done to such a degree.
Show Me The Picture: The Jim Marshall Story
Director: Alfred George Bailey
Release Date: March 15, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
There’s no doubt of the infamy of Jim Marshall, the photographer of legendary musical icons from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin, Miles Davis to Aretha Franklin. He’s become synonymous with musical historiography in the latter half of the 20th century. What’s most intriguing about this picture is the way in which it deconstructed the relationship between the photographer, the camera and the subject. It’s a deeply personal relationship, and a definitive level of trust has to be formed in order to fully understand and expose the subject’s personality. I found this look at art fascinating: as if the process of photographing someone goes beyond the printed image, but captures an essence of a person in a moment in time.
For all intents and purposes, Jim Marshall was a difficult man. A raucous, tempestuous person, he had trouble making connections with others. When an interviewer remarks of Marshall’s photography, ‘he’s technically good, but has no sensitivity’ – it’s joked that his wife says the same thing, The point is that he was hard to love, yet for all his flaws, including a fatal cocaine addiction and heavy alcoholism, he was a person who could see right into people’s inner lives and had a gift of presenting this through his work.
It may have been structured like a typical documentary with talking heads, archive footage and newsreels, but there was something about the construction of this narrative that intrigued me. I think that the use of his actual photographs, coupled with the stories of the people behind them (including relatives and friends) was what made this picture so unique. After all, when we see a photograph, we instantly want to know the story behind it — in a way the film acted as a self-reflexive portrait of Marshall, a living photograph of his own work. To this end, he actually appears in the story — there is footage of him talking to the camera before his unexpected death. It’s both an in-memoriam and a very tangible, very vocal and living snapshot of Marshall’s life.
He was know for photographing jazz musicians, and I felt like this was a unique pull — it’s such a mysterious industry, populated by very elusive characters, and to be able to get such proximity to them is something that only a man of Marshall’s talent could do. For example: there is a shot of Thelonious Monk at home with his family, they are relaxed, almost languishing in the kitchen, or Miles Davis in a boxing ring. The hook is in seeing Davis’ facial expression change radically from his usual haunted state to an open, soft, even warm smile. “Why don’t you photograph me like that?” remarks one artist. “Because you haven’t let me,” Marshall offers in response. It certainly gave me pause and made me look at photography in a whole new way.
It wouldn’t be a documentary about Jim Marshall if it didn’t mention Woodstock, and there’s a section of the narrative devoted to his iconic photography at the festival, including the iconic cover image for Rolling Stone. The filmmakers have some fun exploring Marshalls’ (bipolar?) identity, about how he even turned up to events with a knife and a gun, so intoxicated and paranoid had he become. Yet it’s where some of his most important, most soul-searching work came from, and the juxtaposition with his personality is really quite a marvel.
The most compelling thing about this documentary was the through-line of Marshall’s assistant, Amelia. She had worked for him for fifteen years or so prior to his death in 2010, but beyond a colleague or employee had become his confidant and closest friend. In fact, after his death he left his legacy and business almost exclusively to her, which is something she still maintains with her partner. The two shared a filial bond and he put a huge amount of trust in her over the years. On camera, she spoke about the way in which he often locked himself away to fuel his drug addiction, becoming so paranoid that that he would hurt someone that he went in on himself. This introspection, self-immolation, however you might refer to it, caused Amelia to quite the business in earnest twice, both times coming back at Marshall’s request. An interviewee pointed out that he couldn’t bear to have her walk out of his life for good. Finally, towards the end of his life, he gave up the habit, and those who knew him remarked on how he had changed for the better, even if only for a short time.
In the short space of time it took to watch this documentary, I’m really pleased to say that I got invested in the personalities on screen and came away feeling extremely well acquainted with his story and his work. I’m pleased that SXSW is a platform that’s able to showcase authentic arthouse cinema like this because the quality of the filmmaking was great, and it stands as a testament to the value of trying something new and learning about entire histories you may have otherwise been inclined to overlook.