Posted: 07/27/2011

 

Roll Out, Cowboy

(2010)

by Adam Mohrbacher




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In seeking to balance one’s life between the cultivation of creativity and the obligatory pursuit of capital, it is no wonder that artists find themselves perpetually struggling to imbue their lives with some sort of tangible sense of stability. Such is the case for the main subject of the new documentary Roll Out, Cowboy, which is compassionately and artfully directed by Columbia College alum Elizabeth Lawrence. In Lawrence’s engaging film, we follow a somewhat outrageous character named Chris Sand, who goes by the stage name “Sandman: The Rappin Cowboy.”

As a musical performer, Sand’s defining attribute is that he has no definite musical identity. He is an amalgamation of several highly distinctive styles. Hailing from Dunn Center, North Dakota (whose overall population we are told is under 120 people and shrinking fast) Chris Sand has been carving out a meager existence for himself by living in a ramshackle old house that he procured for less than $1000 dollars. Sandman’s music, which is a bizarre mixture of folk, hip-hop, and country styles, appears to be his salvation and foundation, and also serves as the perfect fodder for cinematic documentation.

However, Lawrence’s perspective towards her subject matter, which could have easily strayed into patronization or exploitation, is instead permeated by a respectful and almost reverential attitude towards Mr. Sand, who we follow during one of his tours throughout the Midwest and Northwest areas of the United States. These sections of the film are a joy to watch, with the viewer slowly becoming acclimated to the irrefutably eclectic yet talented Sandman. Brevity seems to be what Lawrence and her editor were shooting for during the construction of the tour footage, with certain tour stops on the road consisting of little over a minute of screen time. Strangely, despite this somewhat viciously brisk pace, the viewer is still capable of coming to terms with Sand’s highly dichotomous personality, which is the juxtaposition of the creative impulse and the need for fiscal stability and also a fondness for nature and solitude mixed with a dependence on communal institutions.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, with Sand’s musical and personal identity being positioned by the film as representative of the American nation’s splintered psyche, that Sandman’s cross-country tour coincides with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. What the film powerfully suggests is that it is the complexity of the Sandman character and the multi-faceted nature of his musical style that allows his appeal to possess a degree of universality and speak to all demographics, from small-town natives in North Dakota to urban-fringe hipsters residing in Chicago or Portland. Thus, because of the politically charged nature of his music, Sandman stands as a cipher through which to view the American people’s tumultuous relationship with the nation’s political spectrum and the visceral desire to see the country move in a more positive direction.

The central question posed by the film seems to be whether or not it is possible, for those whose aspirations do not entirely revolve around the accumulation of the all-mighty dollar, to still take part in this highly theoretical and increasingly dubious notion of “The American Dream” at the end of the Bush era, or if this notion has always been a bit of a fallacy in a society that is almost entirely driven by lustful capitalistic ambition. Sandman’s story doesn’t present any sort of clear-cut answer to this query. Instead, the film simply evokes the idea that these two distinct and powerful desires (to nurture one’s artistic spirit and to obtain a comfortable financial situation) will exist in almost eternal opposition to one another.

By focusing upon an entertaining and vivid artistic presence and profiling a truly remarkable time in American history, Lawrence’s film emerges as fully functional on a multitude of levels. It is at one point a fascinating and poignant character study but also a profound cultural statement of where we were in 2008 and what we were perhaps looking for. In one sequence, when Sandman breaks from his tour and gains the opportunity to obtain money through more conventional and commercial means, his look of sheer euphoria at being able to settle some of his debts and gain a moment of stability seems to equal the elation that he obtained from his music-making.

This is the crucial point that Lawrence’s film desires to articulate. At the end of the Bush presidency it is almost impossible for many individuals to not feel this level of internal oscillation. While the need to create art and the need to embody a unique personal and artistic sensibility is indeed profound, there is also an equally powerful impulse to conform and submit to the financial system of which we are all a part.

This is the situation that Roll Out, Cowboy so intuitively captures. A nation trying to balance personal and creative desires against fiscal obligation and an artist swimming against the tide of our capitalistic history.

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic living in Chicago.



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