Festivals Music

AFF 2014: “Morphine: Journey of Dreams” Sheds Light on the Unique ‘90s Band

Formed in 1989, Morphine was a three-piece band that consisted of a saxophone player, a two-stringed bass and minimalist drumming. Image from audiofemme.com

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Going into the film, I will be honest and say that my previous knowledge about the ‘90s band Morphine was limited to the small amount of preparation I had done for my interview with the director. This research included Wikipedia, listening to one song on Spotify, and reading the review of the film from the Austin Film Festival website – probably not the most in-depth research I could have done, but I wanted to keep my exposure low so that I could go in with a virtually clean slate.

Mark Shuman’s documentary, “Morphine: Journey of Dreams,” traces the career arc of the band from preconception to what each of the surviving members are doing after—SPOILER ALERT—the lead singer’s death on stage during a concert in Italy. The story is told through interviews with band members, the managers and others who had a real connection to the band. The journals that saxophone player Dana Connelly kept during their tours also play a huge role in telling the story.

Shuman does a great job at integrating the interviews, concert footage and journal readings to create a seamless story, and he definitely succeeded in making me interested in the band. The film had a ton of footage from Morphine’s shows, which made it a great sampler of what the band had to offer, and what I had missed in the music world while I was running around as scrappy, gangly child.

In case you’re wondering, Morphine is a pretty unusual band. As a three-piece band, they rely on a baritone saxophone, a two-stringed sliding bass guitar and simple minimalist drumming. I imagine their music playing in a small, dimly-lit red club, where smoke clouds the air. They’re lounge-y. I wouldn’t say their music is sloppy sounding, but perhaps muddy. There is something primal about their sound that gets you moving. Deep, loose and somewhat disconnected from music in an ethereal way, Mark Sandman’s vocals completely match his face and remind me a lot of Morrissey.

Most of the audience was in their 40s or older. It made me wonder, how much did they already know about the band? Were these original fans? Were these friends of the former members? There were several parts throughout the film that had the audience chuckling,  almost as if there was an intimacy they had that I didn’t, being completely new to the band. It left me feeling like I had missed the real humor in what was said.

One thing that I think the film did lack was some sort of time stamping. For the most part, the documentary didn’t really indicate when everything was happening. This made it tricky to develop a sense of place in the story, especially for someone who had no previous exposure to their career. I, personally, also had a hard time keeping up with who was who for the first half of the documentary, and how they were part of the story. Some of the pacing and few of the edits were a little jarring, but that’s just me being nit-picky.

All in all, I would recommend the film especially, especially, if you’re already familiar with the band. This isn’t like your average music documentary. Shuman decided against having a narrator, leaving the interviews and footage to tell the story. The journals are integrated beautifully and add depth to what their tours were like. Fans will see this documentary as a heartfelt insight into the behind-the-scenes of Morphine.

I would also recommend the film for music junkies who are always looking to get exposed to new music. Since seeing the film, I have picked though Morphine’s albums on Spotify, and have enjoyed listening to them. So hipsters: here’s your chance to fluff up your music library with a band, complete with a cult following from the underground, from a time before you even knew what good music was!


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