In an era when many people seem willing to spread themselves on a cracker to gain one ounce of celebrity, perhaps the wise alternative, stealth path toward fame is—-well, beyond actually being talented—to become as inaccessible as possible.
That’s certainly worked for David Berman, whose band Silver Jews has been recording since 1992 to critical acclaim and cult adulation. Yet they’ve resisted all traditional avenues of promotion and self-aggrandizement. Silver Jews never toured—never played even a single live show.
Until 2006, that is, when newly stirred passion for Judaism prompted Berman to not only consider playing out, but book an epic global tour. Just what makes a lanky, bearded, balding, hitherto hermit-ic singer-songwriter (and published poet) abruptly emerge from the shell of "my hellhole life" in such a drastic way? Michael Tully’s 51-minute documentary Silver Jew—which plays November 7 in SF360 Film+Club at the Mezzanine (more at SFFS)—proves semi-revealing as it records the Jews’ tour dates in the Holy Land itself.
This is more-or-less a professionalized tourists’ home movie. But that shouldn’t dissuade you—particularly if you’re already a fan of Silver Jews’ spare yet humorous, laconic yet confessional, muscular yet voice-of-disgruntled-slacker-weirdo sensibility. If not, get on the bus. Berman’s distinctively monotonous baritone, wryly head-on lyrics and assertive melodies are all idiosyncratic, yet have burnt into many a brain. (You can actually purchase the "Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" indelible mantra as ringtone.)
Berman and fellow musicians, including bassist wife Cassie, are viewed touring Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They discuss with a tour guide the religious extremism (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) endangering various holy sites, barter for marketplace souvenirs, and play for fans who surprisingly sing-a-long all the lyrics. But most involving are the limited views we get of Berman’s own mindset, as he admits pre-touring, "I’ve never had the experience of making people happy." In another emotional moment, he weeps upon contact with the Wailing Wall.
Deeper insight into his religious re-awakening is absent here. But hey…privacy, particularly regarding personal spiritual beliefs, is still a good thing, right? Or is that just-so-20th-century now?
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