Movie review: 'Spider' finds groove in music

  • Article by: TIM CAMPBELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 24, 2005 - 10:00 PM

Minnesota-born filmmaker Don McGlynn's greatest gift is not his eye, but his ear. He shows that again in an affectionate portrait of a home-state hero, "Spider John Koerner: Been Here ... Done That," which has its world premiere Friday at Oak Street Cinema.

Having made more than a dozen music documentaries, McGlynn is a patient listener who gets people to tell their own stories and gives their art a full hearing.

For Koerner, a neglected yet beloved folk-blues warrior who has spent a lifetime on the fringe, that requires overcoming a considerable reserve.

"Why don't you tell us your philosophy of life?" McGlynn poses early on -- a stumper of a question that Koerner deflects with a laugh and an earthy epigram.

Instead, the answer is pieced together over 99 minutes as we tag along to his favorite bar, visit his North Woods shack, hear from old pals Dave Ray, Tony Glover and Willie Murphy and, above all, see Koerner come to life on stage. Unlike most music films, which restlessly butt into performances after just a few bars, "Been Here" gives the songs its undivided attention from start to finish.

Because of his music's rough-hewn quality, people might be tempted to peg Koerner as a primitive. Instead, this former aero-engineering student emerges as a subversive and quintessentially American original: tramp, trickster, self-made legend, self-inflicted casualty.

An inveterate tinkerer -- he proudly shows off a Frankenstein of a lawn mower, cobbled together from spare parts and dubbed the Billy Goat -- he talks about how "the folk process" influences his handiwork: "The design is very simple, but the refinement of the design winds up giving you something which is actually fairly sophisticated."

This is a description that could just as well define Koerner.

Ultimately, what matters to him is whatever he can make with those two sinewy hands, that reedy voice and that stomping boot, which pulses through 12 stirring performances, including some of the final ones by his pioneering trio, Koerner, Ray & Glover. (Ray died during filming.) In its workmanlike way, McGlynn's film is a fitting tribute to that spirit.


Spider John Koerner:Been Here ... Done That

***½ out of four stars

When: Premiere at 7:30 p.m. today, featuring Koerner and director Don McGlynn. It also shows Sat. at 1:30, 3:30, 5:30, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., and Sun.-Thu. at 7:30 & 9:30 p.m.

Where: Oak Street Cinema, 309 SE. Oak St., Mpls. 612-331-3134.

Not rated but includes some mild profanities.

To see clips from the film, and read a profile of Koerner, go to www.startribune.com/music.

Tim Campbell is at tcampbell@startribune.com.

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