'In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton': Film Review | DOC NYC 2020

In My Own Time: A Portrait of Karen Dalton
Fred W. McDarrah

Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton and Fred Neil.

In sync with a singular musical artist.

In a debut documentary executive produced by Wim Wenders, directors Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete explore the music and the troubled life of folksinger Karen Dalton.

When singer-guitarist Karen Dalton, whose ardent fans in the Greenwich Village folk scene included Bob Dylan, died in 1993 at 55, she had long been off the music-biz grid. And when, 20 years after her death, Robert Yapkowitz and Richard Peete embarked on a documentary project about her, their work was cut out for them: Dalton's career was brief, her official output limited to two studio albums, and, given that she was averse to the star-making machinery of promotion, recorded interviews were believed to be nonexistent.

As excavators and storytellers, the directors have done an admirable job, not just in finding archival gems where none were expected, but in honoring Dalton's singular voice. It's the blues-infused voice of an old soul. As Nick Cave, typically eloquent and incisive, tells the filmmakers, Dalton's music occupies "a despairing world." In My Own Time, which takes its title from her second album, is in tune with the haunting poetics of her work.

Dalton wasn't known as a songwriter (though the film includes an exquisite surprise on that front), but as a consummate arranger and interpreter of songs. Her repertoire included numbers made famous by Billie Holiday, obscure country songs, traditional tunes like "Green, Green Rocky Road" (one of Oscar Isaac's numbers in Inside Llewyn Davis) and work by such contemporaries as her close friend Tim Hardin. Her irresistible recording of "Something on Your Mind," a track written for her by Dino Valente, is a particular favorite of Cave's; he speaks movingly of its effect on him.

Though her profile was low, her influence was substantial, during her brief years in New York and again in recent years, thanks to reissues and collections of previously unreleased material. Contemporary artists who cite her as an inspiration include Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Vanessa Carlton (the latter appears briefly in the film to laud her work, as do members of Deer Tick).

Mournful, plaintive, sultry, earthy, insinuating — these are some of the adjectives admirers have used to describe Dalton's music. Among the doc's exceptionally well curated selection of journalist's commentaries numbers two: Ed Ochs compares her voice to "an old radio," and Annie Fischer, writing in the Village Voice about Dalton's 1969 album, It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best, notes with jaw-dropping precision that "her texture is the antithesis of Joan Baez's boring clarity."

During an interview on WBAI's Radio Unnameable — one of the filmmakers' great finds — host Bob Fass suggested a new category to describe Dalton's style of folk: "heart singer." He wasn't talking about syrupy valentines but something elemental and wrenchingly true, as unadorned as the plains of Dalton's native Oklahoma.

The life itself was messy, complicated and often sad. Before she was out of her teens, Dalton was married twice and had two children. She left Oklahoma — and, for a while, her daughter — to chase her music dream in New York, where the folk movement was taking off. But precisely what that dream was became less and less clear, and increasingly impeded by her addictions to alcohol and drugs.

Dalton's nonconformity applied not just to domesticity but to the business of music. In New York she was surrounded by people trying to build careers, but as her third husband, musician Richard Tucker, puts it, "She was very frustrated with the mechanism of getting known." Dalton didn't court fame or seduce her audience, and had no drive to be "entertaining." Refusing to play the game, she expected the world and the industry to recognize her talent. She looks completely out of place in a video for one of her songs, and, by all accounts, a potentially star-making tour as opening act for Santana was not a good fit.

The documentary's talking-head interviews with friends, bandmates, exes and her daughter, Abralyn (Abbe) Baird offer first-person recollections that are vivid and, in their quiet way, emotionally charged. Country singer Lacy J. Dalton recalls her friend's great cooking during lean but happy times, and her own attempts, years later, to help Karen when she was strung out and on the street. (Strangely, there's no mention that she adopted her professional surname in tribute to Karen.) Musician Peter Stampfel shares memories of outrageous, drug-fueled events. And he can't hide his pain, decades after the fact, when he describes cutting the professional cord with Dalton as she spiraled out of control.

The helmers tie together the pieces they've collected with well-deployed abstract images and artfully blurry "re-creations" on Super 8, scenes of "Karen" in the mountains of Colorado, where she spent a significant portion of her nomadic life. But perhaps the most powerful visuals in the film are simply words, handwritten — excerpts from Dalton's journals and poetry, showcased with fittingly scrubbed directness and simplicity (a tone matched by singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, who reads the lines in voiceover). During her final years, near Woodstock, Dalton might have turned away from the stage, but as she focused on writing, her extraordinary voice lived on.

In My Own Time certainly won't be the final biography of Dalton. But it holds a crucial place in preserving her work, particularly in light of a recent turn of events, revealed in the film's final moments by Dalton's friend Peter Walker. After a fire, the filmmakers' images of Dalton's writing are all that remains of them. In telling the story of someone who rejected the conventions of career and self-mythologizing, Yapkowitz and Peete have not only uncovered missing pieces; they've created a record of others that would soon be destroyed. Their doc has its own missing pieces, its narrative gaps. But as it introduces a one-of-a-kind artist to the uninitiated and celebrates her for aficionados, above all it listens — and invites us to do the same.

Venue: DOC NYC (Sonic Cinema)
Production companies: Neighborhood Watch
Directors: Robert Yapkowitz, Richard Peete
Producers: Traci Carlson, Richard Peete
Executive producer: Wim Wenders
Cinematography: Alex Galitano, Sam Wootton, Kevin Phillips, Joe Anderson, Gabe Elder, Ryan Dickie, Richard Peete
Costume designer: Brooke Bennett
Editors: Lance Edmands, Robert Yapkowitz
Composer: Julia Holter
Sales: UTA

85 minutes