Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Dandelion’ Peers Into The Soul of Art

Director: Nicole Reigel
Writer: Nicole Reigel
Stars: KiKi Layne, Thomas Doherty, Melanie Nicholls-King

Synopsis: It follows a singer-songwriter in a downward spiral as she takes a last effort gig at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota where she meets Casey, a guitarist who walked away from his dream long ago.

A guitar with hands carefully stringing and checking frets. A tattoo on a neck – a dandelion. A woman sings to an uninterested crowd in a bar. Her name is Dandelion (KiKi Layne), and she is there three times a week. She might as well not be for all that anyone cares except her friend Brandy the bartender. But a check is a check, and a gig is still a gig. Dandelion is invisible in her hometown of Cincinnati. She is almost invisible in her home; a cluttered space where she lives with her mother Jean (Melanie Nicholls-King) who has emphysema. 

Dandelion is losing her will to keep fighting the continual blocks to her career. Who is going to look at a young Black woman for whom music is everything? She’s a singer songwriter – but she is not a performer. To ‘perform’ now means something more than simply getting the music into the world via one’s own hands and voice – it means being ‘performative’ – well at least that is what Dandelion is seeing. The people who are making it are white girls who slip into bikinis, or White men. Someone is the next Elliott Smith. Someone might be Tom Waits (where is the picture of Rickie Lee Jones?). Dandelion wants to be part of the American songbook but precisely how many Black women have made it? Tracy Chapman ironically only got her first number one hit when it was covered by a white man. Mama Thornton died in a pauper’s grave whereas her song ‘Hound Dog’ is almost exclusively attributed to Elvis. Etta Baker is deemed ‘inspirational’ but often forgotten. Without Sister Rosetta Tharpe would The Cotton Club have rocked?

Dandelion reaches crisis point when she has to sell her prized Gibson Les Paul and realizes that all the sacrifices she is making for her mother and her music are taking her nowhere. She is furniture. After a bitter argument with her mother where Jean spits, “There’s nothing cute about a forty-year-old Cincinnati troubadour,” Dandelion gets in her car and drives to South Dakota to a biker convention where a music competition is taking place. It’s a little bit crazy and a little bit last ditch.

The rally isn’t glamorous, and it isn’t Dandelion’s scene, but what is? Also in South Dakota is Casey (Tom Doherty), who was once in a band but walked away when he realized music wasn’t going to take him anywhere. There is some quiet bad blood between his former bandmates who he hasn’t seen for two years. His friend Grace has recorded an album, Casey says she should send it to him. She already has. 

Casey and Brother Elsey (the group formed by Brady, Jack, and Beau Stablein) play and then Dandelion takes the opportunity to get on stage. She brushes against Casey which accidentally causes her string to break. The crowd heckles her. A drunk steals her guitar case. Casey finds her and returns it. There is a spark of attraction between them. Not immediately quite enough for her to consider going back to where he is staying and ‘play some tunes,’ but enough for a smile and when Dandelion’s car battery doesn’t start, and she can’t just go home, she finds him.

Walking into the campfire jam is the closest Dandelion has had to the company of an artistic group for a long time. The easy collective creation between them is soothing. Mountain Mama, Emery, Brady, Beau, Grace and others are all blow-ins from elsewhere – everyone is passing through South Dakota. Music for some of them is not a way of making a living, it is a way of living. Not so much for Casey – but Casey has stopped breathing his passion. The way he looks at Dandelion is as if she is a beacon for his music – perhaps she will bring his passion back. Or perhaps the opposite will happen, and he will bring her music forward. 

In the still and beautiful South Dakota woods, Casey and Dandelion share their secrets. How he let go of music in exchange for security. How she missed the chance to tour when her mother got sick, and how she is stalled with nothing much left. For Casey, everything just slipped away. He didn’t write. He got married (but they’re not together now, he says). He’s just the guy who used to be in a band. 

“Chasing dreams is hard,” Dandelion says. Casey replies “It’s hard to quit, too.” They begin to write a song together – it is a romance in process. Casey is enlivened and asks Dandelion to play on Saturday with him. Soon it isn’t Dandelion’s song anymore but theirs and he is subtly deciding when she will sing it. Dandelion doesn’t notice because she’s spellbound by the handsome Scot who looks at her with such close attention. “I see you,” he tells her.

The love affair begins in earnest, and she thanks him for playing music with her. “It’s called playing music, so it should feel like play.” He thanks her for allowing him to dream again. Cinematographer Lauren Guiteras has them disappear in the landscape as if it is a part of them and they a part of it. The golden hour haze. The moments of magic. Every time, there are small cracks appearing in the whirlwind affair Casey whisks her away back to the woods. But that can’t last forever. Soon the songs are not a romance, but an argument. An argument still built in passion – Casey’s blue eyes welling up with intensity. It isn’t play any longer.

The one song that Dandelion keeps as her own is ‘Ghosts of Cincinnati’ (now ‘Over the Rhine’) – a song Casey has no share in. What could he know of an area that was gentrified to push the Black community out? Despite him wanting to know everything about her, there are certain things he can never touch. When she records the song for the first time she walks alone in the stone hills. Something belongs to her.

Nicole Rigel takes Dandelion through many emotional states. Fear, elation, frustration, intimacy, despondency, all with absolute authenticity. Few arts can make one as vulnerable as singing words that are meant. Casey too, is finding a rawness he thought he lost – a lyric he sings asks that he is held on the edge of her periphery. But it is borrowed light, and he almost destroys the source.

How many men have claimed the ‘muse’ and then forgotten that a human is not an all-giving goddess to inspire them? How many women have fought back to reclaim their voices, artistic and otherwise? When a woman demands to be heard she is “crazy” – when a man does so he is “commanding.” 

KiKi Layne’s performance reaches into the quick of herself. Dandelion must write no matter the cost, even if that cost is obscurity. Luck plays a hand in success and Dandelion has been unlucky (although entirely human in caring for her mother), but even with talent and persistence is it enough? Can she really be a musician her way? Can any woman artist truly create on her own terms? For each of these questions Layne’s performance is honest – there is no guarantee everything will be wrapped in a pretty bow, but what is guaranteed is that Layne has forged Dandelion through fire.

That the songs (with the exception of ‘Passing Through’ which is a Brother Esley song, and KiKi Layne’s co-writing of ‘Over the Rhine’) were written by Cincinnati legends Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National in no way diminishes the quality of the film’s music (which is spellbinding) but does deliberately present a question. 

Nicole Riegel’s Holler showed the unequal access to the American Dream, for a young woman in a poor area of Ohio turning to a dangerous job is her only chance of getting to college. It was reminiscent of the excellent Winter’s Bone by Debra Granik and put Riegel’s name on a list of directors to watch. The thematic resonance remains between Holler and Dandelion. For some people, the playing field is never level. 

Dandelion is precious and rare; a piece of cinema about the creative flame where the drama has more weight the longer the audience considers it. Riegel appears to have made Theresa/Dandelion an avatar of so many creatives who are stifled by what they are expected to achieve and how. Dandelion is an exquisite journey through the soul of an artist.

Grade: B+

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