Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 17 April 2008
Source DVD screener
We’re doin’ pretty damn well for two people with a dream, man, I’m telling you.
There’s a certain level of pessimism surrounding the American Dream. For something that often lacks definition and is more or less subjective – we each have our own personalized fantasy about what success looks like – the concept has become a bull’s-eye for criticism. In Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, Florence King writes, “People are so busy dreaming the American Dream, fantasizing about what they could be or have a right to be, that they’re all asleep at the switch.” Jill Robinson, also an author, adds, “The American Dream is really money.” And a psychoanalyst named David Abrahansen attributes responsibility for crime rates, in part, to the American Dream because “people feel that the country owes them not only a living but a good living.” All distrustful, all cynical, rendering the American Dream as something that walks and talks and betrays rather than something unseen that propels us forward.
But perhaps the best reflection comes not from a famous author or social commentator but Sandy Scholl, the owner of a small-town cleaning service. Profiled in Studs Terkel’s The Great Divide, she gave perhaps the best description of what the American Dream might truly mean: “I think the American Dream for most people is just survival.” In Greg Kohs’ Song Sung Blue, we can see this constant struggle – between Scholl’s view and the views of King and Robinson, between reaching for your desires and abandoning them – manifested in the lives of Mike and Claire Sardina, who are known to many in Milwaukee as the singing duo Lightning & Thunder.
Song Sung Blue opens with news reports. We see a car leaning front-end-up against the porch of a small suburban home. Later, we learn that this is the Sardina home; tending to her front-yard garden of flowers, Claire was pinned beneath the runaway automobile, losing the lower half of her left leg. We then see the cap of a camera being removed, the camera being jostled into place, and finally Mike at home in his underwear, unkempt. And over scenes of him moving around his home we hear him say, melodically, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, you see, because I am an entertainer.”
From there we learn Mike and Claire’s story, often through memories of the great performances and cheering venues from years passed. The interviewees – close friends, family members, and even a quintet of old soul singers – remember those times fondly, referring to their friends by their stage names rather than “Mike” or “Claire,” and we’re offered an endless amount of video – of Mike gyrating on a stage, of Claire crooning tenderly behind the microphone – that cast both of them as small-time dreamers finally on their desired path. They talk about how Mike’s voice and persona eerily matched Neil Diamond’s, how Claire’s renditions of Patsy Cline songs would reduced audiences to tears, how they were married under a tent during the 1994 Wisconsin State Fair. We then see video of the happy newlyweds celebrating well into the night. We learn that they released a CD of music, performed “Forever in Blue Jeans” at Summerfest with Eddie Vedder, and became a family. But even within these moments of happiness there’s an underlying knowledge that, at some point, their story must descend into tragedy, as all stories do.
What remains of Kohs’ documentary is unflinching, bittersweet and at times brutal—the story of a family forced away from the limelight, brought together to heal. There are short clips of Lightning & Thunder on stage after the accident, the couple near motionless in front of their audiences, with Claire seated in a wheelchair and Mike standing alongside or behind her, asking for understanding. There is no more electricity, no more excitement. Soon we have clips of Mike on stage alone, performing excitedly – desperately, it seems – to no one, while Claire remains at home in a tempest of pain, anger, and self-pity, all while their bank account empties.
Our immediate inclination is to view Mike and Claire as selfishly pursuing their own dreams over the welfare of their family; in one scene, Claire says, “My mom said that she doesn’t understand, with all your computer skills, why you don’t seek something out in computers, something you could do possibly – possibly – at home, possibly on your own time, you know—I don’t know, I mean there may be options out there.” Mike doesn’t agree, he has his eyes on the future of Lightning & Thunder—a mantra we hear repeatedly throughout Kohs’ film, spoken by both Mike and Claire. We also hear Claire’s daughter Rachel bringing up the family’s food supply – “This is, like, the emptiest the fridge has ever been” – and the fact that their home has been overbid, making it “worthless,” to which Mike responds, “You need to move out and go find out what worthless is.”
In fact, there’s a certain level of overall pessimism surrounding Mike and Claire, almost all of it from family outsiders. Claire’s mother, introduced to us as Grandma Stingl, says she doesn’t understand the allure of performing, something Claire attributes to the old woman’s simple upbringing: “My mother, to this day, can’t fathom – even though we had our huge moments with Lightning & Thunder – she can’t fathom the whole thing about the Pearl Jam, when we did that concert with Pearl Jam, in 1995.” Even Mike, in the mix of his opening quotes, says, “I never knew an American Dream, but people tell me I’m livin’ it. The house and the car and the wife and the kids and the picket fence, and I got here by singin.’” He then breaks into a fit of laughter.
“Survival” is just what Mike and Claire Sardina did—they survived. Through all the trials of married life, from Rachel’s unwanted pregnancy and Claire’s accident to outside skepticism and having only “thirty-some dollars” to their name, the Sardina family survived. Even in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, when Claire confesses to wanting a divorce, there is an overall sense that their family will go on. “I had my back turned for just one second,” she says into the lens of the family’s own video camera, her face belying a deep sadness, “and my life was never the same again… And that’s hard to accept because he made my life beautiful and I helped make his beautiful, and I didn’t feel beautiful anymore.” Later, we see Mike appear and sit alongside her, his head resting on her shoulder and her arms wrapped around him, and Claire says, “I’ve always been there for you; please be here for me and let me go for a while, let me walk my path, and I will be back, you know I’ll come back. I always have.”
Standing outside the Bartell Theatre in downtown Madison, a humble smattering of applause rose over the din of traffic as Claire Sardina stepped out from the theatre and stopped, taking in every decibel of adulation. She wore a brown outfit with ropes of golden jewelry dropping down from around her neck, and she stood barely an inch or two above the shortest person there. People moved closer and began shaking her hand, telling her their names and how much they enjoyed the movie. Some mentioned having seen her before, at a concert here or there, and she beamed with pride. And as our small line was ushered into the theatre for the next film, Claire lit up a cigarette and continued talking with those on the sidewalk, exultant. She had completed, at least in part, another chapter of the dream she and Mike shared.