Documentaries on artists can be somewhat troublesome. While it does a great deed of exposing a wider audience to talented creators, it often doesn’t do justice to portraying their personal style. Last year’s Never Sorry managed to present Ai WeiWei as a fascinating activist, but was stylistically too traditional to elevate the narrative beyond facts. With Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, Co-directors Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty attempt to bring to life a deviant Los Angeles artist who has made a career out of going against the grain. Do they manage to present this rebel’s story as more than generic?
What is fascinating about Llyn Foulkes is that he follows his own desires. This is made readily clear with the opening scene in which through a rhyming poem, he states how he dropped out of art school because it felt inauthentic. It is a striking way to begin a story that looks at his modern career in which he works on elaborate art pieces for eight years and talks about his dissatisfaction with mainstream idealism. His work has been described as being macabre and reflective of his sociopolitical beliefs. Just like any artist, he worries about not being accepted by his critics and threatens to quit almost every day.
The documentary attempts to piece together his past through a series of interviews with relatives, fellow artists, and Dennis Hopper. There are numerous art pieces displayed to show his evolution in both quality and personality. It helps to mystify him as a veteran who has earned a reputation as an underground genius. Hearing about Foulkes through other people does little to the actual story and almost serves more as juxtaposition to the artist, who spends most of the time somewhat cynical. While passionate about his work, he isn’t afraid to admit his mistakes. As much as he wants to be admired, there is this sense that he is too self-deprecating.
The problem with the story is not the subject, but the execution. From front to back, Foulkes is a fascinating man who has done a lot of interesting things. All of it is talked about, but it quickly becomes redundant. Even the idea that he doesn’t want people interfering with his work seems like commentary on him as a documentary subject. As a tortured artist, he nitpicks every detail, which starts off as a great way into his psyche, but soon derails the story. Majority of the documentary is about critiquing his own work and badmouthing sociopolitical idealism. He is an unapologetic thinker who says what’s on his mind. While it explains his rebellious nature, it does little in narrative. Beyond a few key moments, there isn’t much purpose to this being 88 minutes long. It could have easily achieved a superior reaction with an edited run time.
The title derives from what is probably his greatest achievement. Referred to as “The Machine,” Foulkes has created a machine with literal bells and whistles in which he performs as a one man band. Having appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, it is fascinating to watch him play the somewhat kitschy melodies about Los Angeles and his personal life. It isn’t hard to believe that one of his prime influences was novelty performer Spike Jones, whose influence comes across in the more absurd numbers. His music also serves as the soundtrack, which makes the comedic melodies take on a more somber and personal tone that immerses the audience in Foulkes’ world. It is in these moments that it feels like we fully understand the genius of Foulkes, even if it feels like an acquired taste.
Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is a portrait of a great artist who followed his dreams and sadly doesn’t get the respect he deserves. While the film does a great job of making him an interesting person, it manages to feel bloated and repetitive at 88 minutes. The documentary’s redeeming qualities lie in the moments in which we see the artist at work, creating something that becomes more inspiring with every little change. If the man of all trades has any downfall, it is his brashness and inability to accept normality. It may be grating at times, but that’s what makes him an authentic and interesting subject. It is just a shame that they packaged his story in such a standardized way.