The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack

An unbeatably colorful life story and wealth of archival materials would have been quite enough to make “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” a first-rate docu. Helmer Aiyana Elliott (who directed the dramatic feature “Tough”) enriches pic further by adding a poignant personal angle. She’s folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s daughter, and this project functions not only as career tribute, but as a (somewhat frustrated) attempt at family therapy with the dad who’s always been “ramblin’ ” away from parental responsibilities. Pic’s engaging complexity earned it a Special Jury Award for Artistic Achievement at Sundance; specialty-circuit theatrical release and upscale broadcast exposure are signaled.

by Dennis Harvey (10 February 2020, Variety, Inc.)

The senior Elliott has long been a near-mythical embodiment of American roots music and wry, ornery “cowboy” storytelling. He came by that image honestly — after a fashion. In truth Jack, born Elliott Adnopoz, grew up the son of a well-heeled Jewish doctor in Brooklyn. It was evidently not a happy household, and from an early age Elliott was forever escaping into the worlds of cowboy fiction and movies. As a teen he even ran away to join a rodeo.

To his family’s dismay, he later eschewed medical school in favor of a passion for folk music and became a protege of ailing folk icon Woody Guthrie. Married in 1955, Elliott and his first wife, June Shelley, traveled to Europe, where they were amazed to find themselves much in demand amid an avid U.S. roots-music revival.

Returning to the States, Elliott found that Greenwich Village post-Beats had caught up to their Continental brethren. His reputation preceding him via the Guthrie connection and some English recordings, he became a major influence on the young Bob Dylan.

Elliott was disappointed later as Dylan and other acolytes (some might say imitators) hit the big time, leaving him behind in cultish semi-obscurity. But he was equally responsible for that fate: The tendency to forever “ramble” off on sailing expeditions and road trips, a bitter late-’60s fallout with a major label, drug use and touring exhaustion took their toll. Among pic’s many amusing commentators are two managers who threw up their hands at Elliott’s terminal unreliability.

Likewise, two of four ex-wives tartly, if good-naturedly, recall becoming booker, gofer, housekeeper and child rearer for a man usually “somewhere” on the road. Helmer was one sprig who seldom saw dad, and had trouble getting his attention when she did. Intercutting archival footage (going all the way back to 1930s home movies) with latter-day verite segs, she finds that even in adulthood — and pop’s old age — it’s near-impossible to orchestrate a serious conversation.

Interviewee Kris Kristofferson tells her, “I never met anyone who was so enchanting on subjects I didn’t give a damn about.” Indeed, Elliott is delightful company: a master at spinning tales, killing time, even doing drop-dead parodies of musical styles he doesn’t fancy. But pic does arrive at a wistful half-catharsis when Jack, cornered at last by his exasperated daughter, confesses they’ll “never uncork the secret” of why he’s been a less-than-ideal father. He is what he is: a rambler, albeit a marginally more settled one these days, based in Northern California with his latest spouse (“Ramblin’ ” Jan), buoyed by belated accolades, including a ’95 Grammy for his first recording in 20 years, and a ’98 National Medal of the Arts handed over by President Clinton himself.

Editors David Baum and Susan Littenberg work wonders structuring this sprawl of career clips, domestic peeks and cross-country road-tripping into a droll, multilayered narrative. Tech aspects are well handled, with diverse age, type and condition of archival clips adding to pic’s nostalgic flavor. (The film has been transferred to 35mm from Super 8, 16mm and digital video.) Plentiful performance segs both old and new are well-recorded — though the sound of Elliott’s husk-dry, pitch-imperfect voice may strike some as more “authentic” than pleasant.

Other celebrity musicians interviewed include Pete Seeger, Odetta, Arlo Guthrie and Dave Van Ronk.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, directed by Aiyana Elliott
Camera (color), Elliott; editors, David Baum, Susan Littenberg; sound, Greg Crawford; associate producers, Susannah Ludwig, Cameron Brodie, David Brendel; consulting producers, Art Horan, June Shelley. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2000. Running time: 112 MIN.

Copyright 1999 Variety, Inc.