The drug of choice for much of the 1990s indie-rock community was Morphine. Like opium dens of dangerously dark, seductive and stylish sound, their records resonated with an alternative crowd that wanted even just a taste of something different. A well-crafted new documentary, Morphine: Journey of Dreams, studies how the roots of addiction took hold. It traces the night-crawling “low rock” innovators’ evolution from Boston club scene heroes, Treat Her Right, to college-radio darlings that scored a major label deal and struggled with success, before the tragic death of visionary leader Mark Sandman.
Director Mark Shuman is blessed with an abundance of source material, including Super 8 movies, lots of rare, exciting concert footage, old Polaroids and tour diaries that saxophonist Dana Colley occasionally reads from to provide a firsthand – and highly literate – account of life on the road. Schuman masterfully pieces it all together in a substantive, engrossing narrative that’s fairly linear.
Going in-depth about a myriad of topics, from Sandman’s uncompromising artistry to the doubts, inner tension and creative malaise that plagued the recordings of Like Swimming and especially The Night, candid interview with surviving band members Colley, Billy Conway and Jerome Dupree and Sandman’s girlfriend, Sabine Hrechdakian, paint a detailed, insightful picture of a band struggling to come to grips with the vagaries of fame and existence. Their participation is vital, especially in recounting with great openness the events leading up to Sandman’s demise from a massive onstage heart attack in Italy. The grief of everyone involved is still palpable.
A fascinating and compelling individual, the mercurial Sandman is the central figure in this story. Attempts are made to form a complete character sketch, but he remains, even in death, a fairly elusive nocturnal creature. Details of his restless life before Morphine are sketchy. Comparisons to American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac are made in the movie, along with vague allusions to coming-of-age family issues, but there’s a reluctance to dig too deep into Sandman’s murky past. Maybe a bit of mystery is a good thing, though. And if that’s the only flaw in what is an otherwise lovely piece of cinema, then Morphine: Journey of Dreams is well on its way to becoming a classic.