PROFILES: Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack

by Larry Getlen (August/September 2000, MovieMaker Magazine Issue 40.)

Life as a modern-day traveling minstrel can be tough on one’s kids, and the appropriately named folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has spent decades on the road, touring from city to city, singing songs, and telling stories about the fascinating people he’s met and the adventures he’s had. His story as told in The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, a new documentary by 30-year-old Aiyana Elliott, deals with the making of an American legend, but the subplot is about a daughter seeking her father’s love.

It’s almost a showbiz stereotype that an artist such as Jack, who learned from Woody Guthrie and mentored Bob Dylan, and who can regale an audience with tales of legends and make a crowd of strangers feel a sense of intimacy, fails to nurture that same bond with those he should feel closest to. Jack’s daughter, Aiyana, began filming her documentary as a cinema vérité telling of her father’s unique American life. She instead wound up instead capturing her quest for her father’s love, her desire to connect with the man whose legacy, indeed his very name, required that roots never take hold.

The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack succeeds as both an entertaining depiction of Jack’s half-century on the road and as an empathetic portrait of Aiyana’s frustration in trying to forge a meaningful father-daughter relationship. The film was shot over two years on 16MM and DV, and includes recent and archival performance footage, scenes of Jack and Aiyana recounting his life, and interviews with Jack’s contemporaries such as Arlo Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Odetta, and Pete Seeger. After winning the Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack was picked up by Lot 47 Films and is scheduled for release in August.

Aside from the usual frustrations and uncertainties of independent filmmaking (the film’s budget eventually rose from $50,000 to over $250,000), Aiyana had the added burden of confronting issues which bled through much of her life. Not only could she not persuade her father to discuss the deeper aspects of his life and their relationship, but after a year and a half of filming him on the road, she realized they had barely spoken at all.

“It never occurred to me that I would have trouble getting an interview with my dad,” Elliott says. (Ironically, the “Ramblin” sobriquet, as it was initially given him, referred not to Jack’s travels, but to his stories—enthralling tales that often last for hours.) “At a certain point I realized that I had a lot of performance footage, and footage of him hanging out backstage, but we hadn’t had the opportunity to do a proper interview. So I planned a trip to California when he had some time off, with the hope that we could sit and talk.”

Unfortunately, the excitement of road life was a harsh competitor for Jack’s time and attention. “It was really difficult for me,” she recounts, “because in my personal life with Dad, that’s something that always eluded me. We had some time together, but it’s hard to actually have a conversation with him. That’s something I had given up expecting or trying to have. But for the movie, I needed to do these interviews. There were questions I had to ask, and ground we had to cover, and so I was trying to accomplish something we had never accomplished in our lives together.”

When they tried to speak in private, people would invariably join in, and Jack never refuses an audience or an adventure. “That’s the story of his life and my lifelong frustration to get his attention. Near the end of my time in California I still hadn’t done an interview with him, so it became a breaking point for both of us, very frustrating.” Elliott’s voice softens suddenly, and with apparent sadness she adds, “that was the hardest moment of the whole thing. I hadn’t really anticipated that.”

Their conflicts sometimes led Elliott to regret the endeavor. “There were times when I felt that not only wasn’t the movie bringing us closer together, but it was doing the opposite. It put me in a situation where for the sake of the movie, I had to demand a certain amount of time from him that had been very difficult to get, as well as try to talk to him about his life and our lives. It was difficult and stressful, and I felt at times like ‘what am I doing?’”

Elliott’s sadness and frustration, and their causes, shine through in the film. In one poignant scene, father and daughter drive to one of Elliott’s childhood homes, but end up not finding it because Jack couldn’t recall its location, a not-so-subtle indication that the concept of “home” was not a Ramblin’ Jack priority.

Still, Elliott and her father have always been in touch, as he would often call her to share stories from the road. She made a short film about him while at NYU Film School, and was encouraged to expand on it. Elliott was more inclined toward narrative fiction, but saw her father’s contemporaries start to pass away, and felt the need to film the full-length documentary sooner than later. “I originally thought it would be a vérité film; that I’d just follow him around with a camera,” explains Elliott. “He always tells wonderful stories, a lot of them about his life, and I thought that with a collection of stories, we could tell his life story that way.” Friends from NYU had formed a company called Plantain Films, which partially financed Pi, and they gave her the $50,000 she needed to start.

Elliott sporadically traveled with Jack, shooting on 16MM, but soon found that Jack’s stories were longer than 12-minute film reels would allow. She continued to shoot concert footage in 16MM, but switched to DV for interviews.

The $50,000 evaporated quickly, and Elliott secured additional financing to continue shooting. Then, in her travels and communications with Jack’s contemporaries, she discovered a treasure trove of archival footage—photos and concert films of Jack from throughout his career. “I didn’t know it existed when I set out to make the film, this stuff I found just nosing around, and there was so much of it. I started researching the history of folk music, and where my dad fell into it, and felt it was important to tell his story with all its scope, beyond just being the link between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.”

Aiyana and co-writer Dick Dahl, who also became both her co-producer and boyfriend during the shoot, realized they would need at least an additional $100,000 to afford the archival material. Elliott renegotiated her deal with the investors, and gave away most of her ownership in the film, retaining only 12 percent.

Despite this, Elliott sees the effort as worthwhile not only for the rewarding film it produced, but for an opportunity to watch her father deal with real issues. Jack went to Sundance with Elliott, and they watched the film together twice. “At the screening, he and I wept through the whole movie,” recalls Elliott. “He’s moved around a lot, and I think the film pulled together a lot of disparate parts of his life. His place in folk music is key, he’s known great people and been at historic junctures, but he’s never been able to write it down, so he feels compelled to tell his story. To have it told definitively in the form of this film, I feel, brought him a sense of joy and relief.”

According to Elliott, many in the audience felt the same way. “People of all ages, men and women, came up to me after screenings and seemed moved. That was the biggest surprise. I thought my dad was such a unique guy that the story of our relationship must be pretty unique, but everybody seems to really identify with it.”

So did the judges at Sundance, as they awarded The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack the Special Jury Prize for Artistic Achievement. This opened up a lot of doors, since Elliott couldn’t get any distributors to see the film at Sundance. “It was a big surprise,” says Elliott, “because we had distributors tracking our progress before the festival, and it’s a big deal to be in competition there, and you get amazing media attention and great audiences. To not be able to get distributors to see the film was shocking.”

The award, however, changed all that. Several offers soon surfaced, and Lot 47 Films bought The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack for $200,000. Independent distribution veteran and Lot 47 co-founder Jeff Lipsky bought the film for its “multiplicity of hooks.” “First of all, the film got to me emotionally, personally,” said Lipsky. “Second, here’s a film with a music hook, and that’s one of the most potent hooks for independent film. You have this guy sandwiched in between Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, a wonderful father-daughter story, and celebrity names. I think it’s one of the most entertaining documentaries I’ve seen since Roger and Me.”

Interestingly, Lipsky says that Elliott’s NYU narrative short film, Tough, almost better demonstrates her savvy as a moviemaker. Tough, a 20-minute short which received extensive play on Bravo, is a coming-of-age story about a girl contending with her irresponsible hippie parents. And Elliott’s current script-in-progress, Tour of Misery, is a dramatic comedy about a dysfunctional family (although she insists that this script, which she is co-writing with Dahl, is about someone else’s family). It seems likely that The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack may mark the beginning of a large, entertaining, and thematically familiar body of work.

All Contents Copyright 2000 MovieMaker Inc.