Tommy Dean & Friends was my first film and probably the most pure documentary work I will ever do. It was a straightforward production of a man with a video camera. The product that came out of that adventure is a window into the life of singer songwriter Tommy Dean but also a document of my development as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
I discovered Tommy Dean through the Seattle open mic scene. I had been hosting an open mic at Trabant one summer and I was a regular performer at the now defunct Mr. Spot’s Chai House. Everybody was pretty enamored with this kid Tommy from Tacoma because he really nailed the Bob Dylan thing in a way that most of us tried but could never really grasp.
Tommy Dean had a manager at the time named Jamie Hunsdale. He approached me about putting Tommy Dean on my radio show at KSUB because he had heard I had brought on Todd Davies not but a week before.
That introduction was instrumental in transforming my life as a floundering journalism student to an aspiring filmmaker with a passion for direct cinema. I had seen Don’t Look Back at The Northwest Film Forum the week prior and I was feeling somewhat inspired so I offered to make a Tommy Dean movie. We never got Tommy on the radio but he was pretty keen on making a movie with me.
Tommy had a girlfriend at the time named Shannon Jae. She was a bit of a performer herself and actually started to step into her own as a singer and songwriter through the course of my filming them. It was very exciting for me to witness this development in their lives and I feel very privileged to have been there to capture it.
The production of this documentary taught me the hard lesson of maintaining full coverage. I still think back on all the moments that I missed because the film camera was put away or I thought the camera was rolling when it actually wasn’t. There were also times when I was recording but the recorded moment was unusable for various technical reasons. Outstanding musical performances. Hilarious one liners. Spontaneous comments of uncanny self awareness. Or sudden and dramatic outbursts of drama. To catch the moment, you have to be ready for it and its best if the camera is already recording.
One of my favorite scenes is from Hempfest. Bill Haite and Robin Atwood were going through their slide guitar and washboard routine. Robin always catches peoples eye because of the large curly head of hair that he has in the movie. And Bill has a booming voice that just howls.
Also at Hempfest that day was a man and woman duo of Bible thumping doomsayers. More interesting than their message of heaven and hell was the one liner the woman kept throwing at people. She said, “just because you hang out in the garage does that make you a car?”
Of course, she was referring to the idea that going to church does not make you a Christian but to many people, the phrase was a nod to some criticism of the folk singers. Just because you have the big hair and wayfarer sunglasses, does that make you a folk singer?
There is a scene in which another character reflects upon the theme of playing a part. An older man is conversing with Tommy out front of Trabant in the University District. He says to Tommy, when someone accuses you of being derivative of Bob Dylan, you have an option to take the insult and interpret it as a compliment.
Tommy agrees with the old man and says yes, “If people compare me to Bob that’s a good thing. If people compare me to Guy Clark, that’s a good thing.”
I always laugh when Tommy says that because I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody to compare Tommy to Guy Clark. Not because Tommy doesn’t do a good Guy Clark but because I’ve never met anybody aside from Tommy who knows who Guy Clark is. To be honest, I only know about Guy Clark through Tommy.
Every time I look back on Tommy Dean & Friends I think about going back and re-ingesting the footage from mini-DV tape and re-editing the footage. Distance has given the story some clarity. Time has also given me an opportunity to develop my skills in audio editing editing and color correction. Its hard to remind myself to keep my sights forward.