The Family Jams
Directed by Kevin Barker
A documentarian that happens to capture the rare moments before fame strikes captures something truly special: the innocence of it all, the enjoyment and free-spirited carefree times before one must get serious, the relationship with fans that unfortunately must change due to the nature of a growing reputation. Mainly, though, there’s a sense of something that’s right around the corner that’s often unspoken–and sometimes completely unrecognized–which makes the subjects seem oddly innocent.
Such it is with The Family Jams, a document of a 2004 summer tour featuring Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, and Vetiver. Filmed by Kevin Barker (Vetiver, Currituck County), the summer jaunt is a hippy trek of three groups who would shortly become the “next big thing” in the indie-rock world. The summer tour is a relatively small affair; though playing a handful of big clubs on the West and East coasts, the gigs are usually small venues and less traditional venues such as art galleries.
It’s not always an easy affair, touring. We meet Banhart’s family–a stepfather that’s a father figure, and a father who makes for an uncomfortable presence–and we experience sudden loss, as we learn that Newsom’s best friend has died in a car accident. Along the way we feel the realities of waiting for the club to open, the dullness of driving hours and hours, and even the occasionally random small airplane crash. But there are fun moments, too; Banhart’s excitement at playing for Linda Perhacs, and he’s dreamy-eyed when talking with her, and “the family jams” that happen at the end of each night’s performance provide for some wonderful music and fun times. And for those that find the “freak-folk” movement to be painfully precious and twee, there’s very little of that to be found–though one might find Devendra’s interaction with a dragonfly to be a bit much.
But the fun times of that tour are fleeting, and at the end of the film, back home in San Francisco, one of the touring members astutely says, “This will never happen again,” and he was right. It couldn’t happen again; Banhart and Newsom would become quite popular shortly afterwards, making them have to up their professional standing due to rising fame. The Family Jams wonderfully captures that innocent time, and provides for some great music along the way.