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Charismatic singer finds his own audience

A first-time filmmaker documents Ben Harper as he takes his blend of rock, folk and blues on the road.

November 29, 2002|Carolyn Patricia Scott | Times Staff Writer

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper has been confounding critics and building a loyal following largely without airplay or huge record label publicity campaigns, playing music that defies categorization -- part rock, folk and blues.

Harper has won his audience one club at a time, city by city, traveling by plane, bus and automobile. Fans frequently cite the musician's music, his message and his accessibility as contributions to his charm. In his documentary "Pleasure & Pain," playing through this weekend in Los Angeles, director Danny Clinch takes a look at Harper's intimate performance style and charismatic persona.

Clinch was a rock music photographer who had first framed the singer in his lenses for the pages of a music magazine. "There was a comfort level and a confidence and a communication in the photo shoot," Harper recalls. "Danny said, 'One day I might want to make a film on you.' "

The pair laughed and parted, but the idea of a documentary took hold once Harper's manager and longtime partner, Jay Plunier, saw the photos from the shoot.

"J.P. had been saying, 'We've got to do a film about you.' So when he saw the pictures he said, 'This is the guy,' " Harper says. "He contacted Danny, who said he wanted to make his first feature." The film had an unconventional production schedule; in fact, Harper says, "We never had a release date." There were, of course, budgetary limits but no time constraints. The shooting schedule was negotiated venue by venue. "We just said, let's start working on it now and when it's done, it's done." Somewhere between that initial conversation to the film's premiere last week, Clinch spent more than a year and a half touring with and filming Harper and his band, the Innocent Criminals.

The film mimics Harper's genre-blending musical style. Clinch combined super 8, 16-millimeter and digital video footage to produce crisp, dramatically lighted onstage shots and grainy video of fans chatting with Harper in the parking lot after a concert, interspersed with playful home-movie takes of Harper and bandmates hanging out on the bus.

And though fans of Harper's music will be more than satisfied with the film's playlist -- Harper gets considerable time to sing tunes, including the title song "Pleasure & Pain," in which his relaxed tenor imbues the lyric with rough-edged blues, soft soul inflections and the narrative of a folk ballad -- the film does take one leisurely side trip.

The cameras follow Harper home, and about a quarter of the film is shot around the performer and his family, at his mother's dining table and to his grandparent's shop, the Folk Music Center in Claremont.

Here the filmmaking is unobtrusive as Harper's music plays in the background of conversations with his relatives and recollections from his past that acknowledge his most powerful influences.

It's there that Harper's roots show most clearly: Each member of his immediate family is a musician. And Harper reflects, "I'm super-proud to be from an American musical tradition, but at the same time I'm very proud to establish my own American tradition, using the past as part of the foundation and not a crutch."


'Pleasure & Pain'

Where: Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 848-3500.

When: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.

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