Published at: May 7, 2008, 12:55 a.m. CST by quint
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here. By sheer coincidence, I wrote reviews of two documentaries in the same day, the subjects of which I saw at two separate Pearl Jam concerts. One film, BODY OF WAR, is opening slowly across the country right now; the subject is a young Iraq veteran who appeared on stage with Pearl Jam at last year's Lollapalooza, which I attended. The subjects of the other film, SONG SUNG BLUE, are of an entirely different variety. In the summer of 1995, I saw one of my first Pearl Jam shows at Milwaukee Summerfest. For the first encore, Eddie Vedder brought out a husband-and-wife team knows as Lightning & Thunder, a local Neil Diamond tribute act that was playing in front of the largest crowd of their entire career. The pair (plus Vedder) sang a rousing rendition of "Forever In Blue Jeans" that I eventually got a bootleg of, one that I still play frequently just to listen to how excited the two were on stage. Every so often, I'd spot the group's name in the listings for Chicago concerts, and they seemed to eek out a good living playing small clubs around the Midwest.
Imagine my surprise when an email drops in my box a couple weeks ago from Greg Kohs, the director of SONG SUNG BLUE, a documentary about Lightning & Thunder. This man had no idea that I saw them perform at the high point of their career some 13 years ago, but when I heard the film was about this remarkable team, I said "Send me a copy of that movie NOW!" I had to see whatever become of this little piece of music history. SONG SUNG BLUE tells the story of the dynamic duo's rise and fall and rise and fall. Their story is perhaps not unusual for some working-class folks from Milwaukee, but for Mike and Claire Sardina, there was a time when Lightning & Thunder were one of the biggest acts in the area, playing state fairs, clubs, and other high-profile gigs (including that Pearl Jam appearance) throughout the 1990s. SONG SUNG BLUE isn't a movie about the job of being in a tribute band; that film has been done before. No, this movie is about this couple and their two kids (actually Claire's kids from a previous marriage) going through some of the worst times a family can go through and still coming out hopeful and full of dreams.
You can choose to look at SONG SUNG BLUE as the ultimate American tragedy or the classic American success story. I see it as prime examples of both. Some of what impacts the Lightning & Thunder story is totally out of their control (a car that hits Claire while she's gardening in her front lawn); while certain failures are of their own doing (their non-stop smoking leads to major health issues). But every triumph is one of their own making, gotten through hard work and never giving up on their dreams. And for some strange, unknown reason, not only did they allow cameras into their lives to document their story, but they have home movies of some of their darkest hours. It's sometimes too painful to watch, let alone contemplate their losses.
I absolutely live to discover films like this, ones that present us with this small sliver of life that so perfectly exemplifies the parts of us that cling to a moment in our lives when we were on top, whether it be your time on a sports team in high school, or when you met someone famous, or when you were interviewed on TV or for the local paper. We all have those moments we look back on during our darkest days to inspire us and strive to achieve some of that glory one more time. Often times, people never get to relive or recapture those moments, but sometimes you get pretty damn close. SONG SUNG BLUE is about almost reaching that place one last time, and realizing that getting close is sometimes exactly what you need. But the film is also a touching love story between Lightning and Thunder, a coupling that is as volatile as it is inspiring.
SONG SUNG BLUE is just starting to make the festival circuit as it probably will for the better part of the year. If you're in a city with a decent festival for docs, start lobbying to get this film to play in your town. I'm just here to put a bug in your ear and tell you to keep an eye out for this remarkable little movie that is equal parts celebration and cautionary tale. The film ends with the gift of a guitar from an unlikely and unexpected source, and the keepsake illustrates what the film stands is all about and it's a beautiful tribute to two bizarre and lovely people. Seek this one out in your corner of the world.