Wave that Freak Flag: 'The Family Jams,' at the Corcoran

Family Jams
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Kevin Barker’s tour documentary, “The Family Jams,” shares a name with a Charles Manson album. But tremble not: The film’s title is what Barker calls “a tongue-in-cheek joke about the Mansony-thing” the media is so fond of noting about Devandra Banhart.

Banhart is the reigning boy king of the freak-folk music scene profiled in the film — a bearded, magnetic, cypher of a singer-songwriter who bears more than a passing resemblance to ol’ Charlie. As a finale to each show on their 2004 tour, Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver and a revolving cast of special guests turned these spooky associations on their head in joyous musical hootenannies they dubbed “the family jams.”

When filming began, Banhart was the biggest draw on the tour’s roster. Joanna Newsom, she of the intricate and epic harp opus, soon surpassed Banhart as she won critical acclaim and media love. Barker captured Newsom’s unexpected burst of fame, giving viewers the chance to witness that ineffable moment when an artist breaks through to another level. This scenario often translates to in-fighting and envy (see “Dig,” the documentary on a great friendship turned poisonous rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols). But in “The Family Jams,” Newsom is supported and inspired by her creative cohorts as she struggles with personal losses that temper her rise.

It’s this sense of family and community that Barker, himself a musician and sometime member of Vetiver, most wanted to capture. Though the film is filled with musical performances, Barker was not interested in “making a concert film for fans.” Instead, he says, he aimed to illuminate the freewheeling inspiration and sustenance a community of like-minded people can create.

“It’s about young people being really excited about the future,” Barker says. “If you’re true to your vision, you can build a community. The musicians in “The Family Jams” did that — they built a community of artists and musicians, and this tour was the jumping-off point. It’s about that hope for the future.”

And that’s the polar opposite of Mansony.

» Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW; followed by a Q & A with director Kevin Barker; Tuesday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m.; $10; 202-639-1700. (L’Enfant Plaza)

Written by Express contributor Jessica Roake
Photo by The Family Jams

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