One seminal, under-heralded African-American cultural figure salutes another in When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, Billy Woodberry’s profile of beat-poet Bob Kaufman. An oral biography nimbly combining rich, varied archival footage with talking-head present-day interviews, the U.S.-Portugal co-production picked up the prize for best investigative documentary when world-premiering at DocLisboa in October and will doubtless grace numerous discerning festivals over the coming months. Small-screen play is also indicated for this slightly rough-edged but heartfelt, quietly inspiring attempt to shed light on a compellingly enigmatic individual (“most of what was known about Kaufman’s life and biography was shrouded in myth and legend.”)
The doc marks a welcome and overdue comeback for Woodberry some 31 years after his sole drama feature Bless Their Little Hearts, a neo-realist study of a cash-strapped Watts family, made considerable impact on limited Stateside release. Along with his sometime collaborator Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), Woodberry was a leading figure in the L.A. Rebellion, the loose collective of black filmmakers who emerged from the UCLA Film School in the mid-1970s and foregrounded social and political issues in their work.
Woodberry has taught at CalArts since 1989, and provided narration for his campus colleagues Thom Andersen (Red Hollywood, 1996) and James Benning (Four Corners, 1998). But his only directorial credit in the past three decades was a two-hour video installation about the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, The Architect, the Ants, and the Bees (2004). Woodberry’s reputation received a boost when Andersen gave significant prominence to Bless Their Little Hearts — alongside Killer of Sheep and Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles — in his epic survey of L.A.-shot cinema, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, re-edited and re-released in 2014). Restored by UCLA in 2011, Bless Their Little Hearts was placed on the National Film Registry two years later.
When I Die shows a few signs of cobweb-blowing here and there — audio-editing is uneven; typos abound in the on-screen captions (on the version caught) — but confirms Woodberry’s commitment to the marginalized sections of American society. Kaufman is summed up at one point — in the words of his better-known peer Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) — as “the maximum beatnik … the most uncompromising, most principled, [making] no concessions to bourgeois culture.”
In a meandering, non-chronological manner, Woodberry traces Kaufman’s New Orleans origins, his involvement in labor struggles in the immediate aftermath of World War II — particularly strong stuff here, with the rough-and-tumble realities and injustices of the time economically and movingly evoked — to his flowering as part of the teemingly rich poetry scene of San Francisco’s North Beach in the late ‘50s, and then his relocation to New York in 1961.
Kaufman arrived in Greenwich Village just as the folk scene was taking off — he wrote the lyrics to Dave Van Ronk’s “Green Green Rocky Road,” as heard in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. But in late 1963 he suffered a double blow: the assassination of John F. Kennedy reportedly hit him very hard, and he underwent severe psychological trauma as a result of electro-shock treatment meted out after an absurd arrest for walking on the grass in a Manhattan park.
Sustained harassment from authorities, plus his own multifarious, hardcore substance abuses, exacted a severe toll through the ‘70s and ‘80s. By this point, however, Kaufman, while never any kind of household name, was revered within poetry circles. Woodberry includes copious extracts from Kaufman’s jazz-inspired, enduringly quicksilver work (“love-tinted beat angels doomed to see their coffee-dreams crushed on the floors of time …”) read by such magnetic voices as Roscoe Lee Browne, often with propulsive bongo accompaniment. Comparisons with Rimbaud and Lorca are plausibly thrown about by Woodberry’s collaborators.
He films his interviews in conventional style, with his own presence discreetly minimized — he’s never seen, and we don’t hear his questions, but from time to time his chuckling is audible, adding lovely little touches of warmth. Further personal interjections from Woodberry himself would also have been welcome in a film which generally adopts a steady-hands, traditional approach to a man who was evidently a genuine maverick and ahead-of-his-time innovator, instinctively swimming as far from any mainstream as possible.
Production company: Rosa Filmes
Director-screenwriter: Billy Woodberry
Producers: Rui Alexandre Santos, Billy Woodberry
Director of photography: Pierre H. Desir
Editors: Amir Masesh, Luis Nunes
Sales: Rosa Filmes, Lisbon, Portugal
Not rated, 89 minutes