‘The Second Act of Elliott Murphy’: Film Review

Courtesy of Mirabal Films
An engrossing tale that never goes deep enough.

The latter years of a '70s singer-songwriter survivor are explored in Jorge Arenillas’ documentary.

“With rapid speed I climbed up the rock-and-roll mountain,” reminisces the hero of The Second Act of Elliott Murphy. “Then I got to the top and fell off the cliff.” But not quite. A contemporary of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Billy Joel, back in the 1970s Murphy was one of several candidates to be the new Bob Dylan (a winner-take-all race that Springsteen eventually won). But though he’s largely disappeared off rock’s U.S. radar, Murphy, now in his late 60s, is enjoying a fulfilling artistic career in Europe; and as Jorge Arenillas’ slightly too admiring documentary shows, what he’s actually become is the not the new Dylan but the new Elliott Murphy.

Viewers expecting the deep pleasures of, say, Searching for Sugarman will be disappointed, but as a feel-good record of survival for rock and rollers of a generation ago, this is a quiet pleasure.

Once the long-haired, blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy of the New York underground scene, a suburban chronicler of pop Americana who back in the day became a denizen of such legendary and very cool haunts as Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, Murphy never had the radio hit that everyone predicted he would, and in 1989 — following a stint as a lawyer — hightailed it to Paris, which is now his home and where he has a faithful cult following: “I can’t have sold out,” he wryly complains when he hears there are no tickets left to one of his concerts, “I’m trying to be a cult artist."

The film basically follows chronological order, intercutting talking heads with period footage and regular returns to a recent unplugged concert given by Murphy in Bilbao, Spain. Seen in retrospect, Murphy’s rise to almost-famousness appears to have been smooth — he had the luck to be the right face at the right time. Problems are touched upon, including a fairly cursory mention of drinking and financial problems, which the viewer suspects were more problematic at the time than the film is telling, and unnecessary time is devoted to his bass player brother’s — later manager’s — decision to swap music for management following a car crash.

“A story of struggle is more interesting than a story of success,” Murphy tells us at one point, but this is never really a story of struggle, more a story of honorable persistence. There’s the sense that Arenillas has been happy to use his film as a platform for the version of himself the very canny Murphy has decided to peddle. Impressions are taken at face value: The merits of Murphy as a lyricist and songwriter are taken for granted, and there are no unwitting revelations.

All that said, there’s real pleasure in simply hearing the reflections of Murphy himself, sitting in various chairs, bandana on his head, an engaging raconteur who’s both literate and literary; he wrote a song called "Like a Great Gatsby," the film’s title is borrowed from Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that there are are no second acts in American lives, and Murphy now regularly publishes his writing as well as continuing to play. He comes over as sane and grounded, anti-industry but nevertheless lacking in the bitterness that might have affected him and grateful for what he has. Other interviewees are bought in to round things out, including his wife Francois and son Gaspard and big-timers Joel and Springsteen, his lucid friends and contemporaries: Springsteen, for example, reflects on the essential Europeanness of Murphy’s work.

Of that work, time is reserved for only one full song, the touching, spoken memoir of his father “On Elvis Presley’s Birthday," performed in Bilbao with his longtime guitarist sidekick and all-round nice guy Olivier Durand. But buffs will enjoy the way the film returns to different versions of other Murphy staples, including "Last of the Rock Stars." Over the last 15 minutes, Second Act becomes a little less focused, featuring a hard-to-explain scene involving Murphy looking for some ear plugs in a dressing room.

For lovers of movie trivia, the film answers the question “Which Paris-based American rock musician had a small role in Fellini’s Roma?” In 2015, Murphy became a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres in France, joining the likes of George Clooney and Terry Gilliam, suggesting not only that the fine-sounding phrase of the title is wrong, but that a second act can actually outstrip the first.

Production companies: Mirabal FIlms, Ruta 66 Productions
Cast: Elliott Murphy, Olivier Durand, Francoise Viallon-Murphy, Gaspard Murphy, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Jorge Arenillas
Editor: Juanma Ibanez
Sales: Mirabal Films

Not rated, 91 minutes