Benjamin Smoke is Jem Cohen's and Peter Sillen's documentary about Benjamin (1960-1999), a radical, gay rock 'n' roll performer they discovered in Athens, Georgia. Using the persona, 'Miss Opal Foxx,' Benjamin, born Robert Dickerson, wore a sundress, carried a beat-up purse and belted out a smoking set of wildly eclectic songs. Backing him up was a band that played everything from violins and organs to cap pistols used as percussion instruments. The filmmakers were immediately enraptured by this singular personality and caught his life and performances in the decade or so before he finally succumbed to AIDS.
The film, made on an absolute shoestring, captures the essence of this Southern 'Oscar Wilde' as he alternately takes center stage and also just hangs out, rapping in the thickest drawl about his hard-knock life of sex, drugs and rock. He was a happy, self-admitted drag queen from the time he was nine years old, 'with a towel on my head like Whoopi, going to the Waffle House in a dress.' Enthralled in the late '70s by punk and, especially, Patti Smith, he moved to New York for a bit. There, he found work at the famed club CBGB's, which he describes as 'the filthiest place I ever was,' where a large part of his $20-a-day job basically consisted of sweeping up all of the broken glass left by the spirited performers and audiences. Cohen and Sillen also preserve the special ambiance of Benjamin's neighborhood, Cabbagetown, a rundown, unsafe area of Atlanta, peopled by every hustler and eccentric imaginable, and a passel of agreeably scruffy kids.
Benjamin's band is a holy wonder, backing his Tom Waits-like caterwauling with an almost jazzy improv effectiveness. 'For a faggot, do I have a rockin' band or what?' Benjamin yells out at one point. His oral reminiscences are also entertaining: 'When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was Claudine Longet and I'd murdered my boyfriend, and my husband, Andy Williams, was upset.' And, although he admits to looking half-dead and having no desire to be an AIDS spokesperson, he declares, 'HIV is not a death sentence.' Indeed, it was a force that brought him and his estranged mother together. But perhaps Benjamin's truest, most revealing statement of all is 'I've seen real life 1,000 times and 999 times, I've seen it suck.'
REM's Michael Stipe generously helped back the film, but it is the actual presence of Patti Smith that confers a profound sort of grace on the film. This true American treasure recites a poem, 'Death Singing,' she wrote for Benjamin. ('With a throat smooth as a lamb yet dry as a branch not snapping/He throws back his head yet he does not sing a thing mournful.')