Roll Out, Cowboy
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.
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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