“Just an American Boy” is more than just a chronicle of activist/musician/author/poet/playwright/ex- con Steve Earle’s recent brush with perceived anti-Americanism. It’s also an excellent look at a left-wing supporter who actually has some interesting things to say. I don’t know about you, but lately the left-wing diatribes seem as lame and haphazard as the right-wing diatribes and it makes me tune it all out as if it were white noise. But when Steve Earle, speaking on his stance on the death penalty, says something like “the government is supposed to be an extension of me, and I don’t want to kill anybody” it’s good food for thought.
Earle made news in 2003 when his song “John Walker’s Blues” caused a bump on the tailgate of the pro-American bandwagon that started up after the 9-11 attacks. In his song, Earle actually had the nerve to write from “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh’s point of view! GASP! What a heretic!
Coming into “Just an American Boy,” I thought the film would be a spirited defense of Earle and his song, which seemed annoying to me. I mean, who even knows where Lindh is now? Sad but true, it’s become a non-story. Fortunately the film is much more than that and spends maybe ten minutes on the topic.
The rest of the film touches on Earle’s activism, his first stageplay (which he wrote) and his various incarnations as a musician. The film is able to meld together the many faces of Earle as a bluegrass, country and rock musician and it, like Earle’s music, never seems out of place. Steve Earle has lead an amazing life as a headliner for stadium tours in the 1980’s who was soon reduced to being tracked down in a backwater trailer park by a magazine writer. Earle later did some hard time and then made a musical comeback that has been going strong.
If I have one complaint about this film though, it’s the production. I’m all for “do it yourself” but the sound and editing on “Just an American Boy” need some work. The footage is clearly not close microphoned and that includes the concert footage. Would it have been so hard to plug into the sound board? Concert footage from a camera mic sounds shabby at best. Also, the editing in this film sometimes appears like it was done by a novice who jumped on Final Cut Pro and said, “look at this COOL effect!” It doesn’t make the scenes more interesting, it distracts from them.
I think what I liked best about this film is, it shows Earle as someone who is caring and compassionate, who isn’t interested in saying things just to get attention. Michael Moore should take a page from Earle. Also pleasant is the fact that not one single time that I can remember does Earle bash the President. I’m by no means pro-George W. and I don’t hold the Presidency to some sort of out-of-reach position that shouldn’t be questioned. But it seems like bashing him is just the hip thing to do and rarely is there any substance or information behind the jibes. It’s all done for a cheap laugh or applause from the uninformed.
Throughout the film, Earle merely explains himself and his politics in a way that is personal, yet makes actual sense. By the end, we know where Earle stands on the current state of America and on George W. Bush, yet he never even puts it into words. Plus, he doesn’t resort to beating us over the head with silly name calling and references to Vietnam. Bravo! People like Steve Earle can make a difference in the world due to their passion and intelligence and “Just an American Boy” goes a long way in showing that.