Ramblin' Jack put on the spot in daughter's film

By Dean Goodman (30 Aug. 2000. 2:21 PM ET, Los Angeles — Reuters)

A daughter tries to connect with her famous absentee father while his former girlfriends, wives and business associates recall what a scoundrel he was.

This is not another episode of the sensation-seeking "Jerry Springer Show" but a new documentary about Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a Grammy-winning folk singer who learned his craft at the feet of Woody Guthrie and passed it on to Bob Dylan.

Director Aiyana Elliott, the troubadour's 31-year-old daughter, followed him around the United States, initially with the aim of documenting his colorful life. But as filming progressed, she became a character in the story, unsuccessfully trying to bond with her idiosyncratic father.

"The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack" which won an award for artistic achievement at the Sundance Film Festival this year, is slowly rolling out in arthouse theaters across North America, winning raves for its compelling drama.

Old pals such as Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Arlo and Nora Guthrie and Odetta share stories about the cowboy folkie. Aiyana also dug up home movies and rare concert footage featuring the likes of Johnny Cash and Dylan.

In tracing the life of 69-year-old Elliott, the film serves as a primer on American folk music. "There wouldn't be no Bob Dylan without Ramblin' Jack Elliott," Woody Guthrie's son Arlo states categorically.

Dylan, who was billed as "the son of Jack Elliott" when he first came to New York City in 1961 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, declined to be interviewed for the film, but his manager was helpful in providing footage.

Daughter Vs. Father

But one need not be a music fan to appreciate the film, since the parallel dysfunctional family story is juicy enough. Still bearing the scars of his upbringing in a loveless Jewish household in Brooklyn, New York, Elliott has been through four wives and many girlfriends, most of them domineering types who tried to put some order into his disorganized life.

Aiyana, born in 1969 to his fourth wife, Martha, was lucky to see him a few times a year. Her parents' marriage did not last long and Aiyana and her mother lived on welfare in Santa Cruz, California, while Jack was barely making a living on the road, conjuring up the ghosts of Leadbelly and Woody.

"I always felt like there was a lot of closeness and love between us," Aiyana told Reuters. "But I was always struggling to get more time with him and get a better understanding, and it seems to have happened — through making the movie."

But the movie depicts one failed attempt after another by Aiyana (an Indian word meaning "flower that blooms forever") to get her father to open up. In true dramatic style, its climax is a confrontation in the back of Jack's motor home.

As a frustrated Aiyana complains that she has never had a proper conversation with her father, an uncomfortable-looking Jack grabs a bottle of beer — he does not drink beer — just to look busy and avoid having to answer her.

"I didn't know the answers to those questions and she kept needling me and pushing me, nagging — Daddy this, Daddy that," he recalled in a separate interview. "But we've never been that close so she's like a stranger to me in a way, although I'm very fond of her and try to give her a lot of emotional love when I see her and stuff, hugs and kisses."

True to his name, Jack really does ramble.

"I never met anyone who was so enchanting on subjects I didn't give a damn about," Kristofferson recalls in the film.

While he cannot talk openly with his daughter, Jack will bare his soul to strangers, making him a journalist's dream. He admits to being very paranoid and believes he may have inherited it from Dylan, who encountered a lot of hostility in his early days. The two have not kept in touch, which evidently still pains Jack, and Dylan has not seen the film, Aiyana said.