Rosie Thomas has been a consistently pleasant stalwart in the indie-folk world for over a decade, signing with Sub Pop in 2000 after providing vocals on a Damian Jurado track. I remember, as a freshman in college, listening to samples of her songs on the label's website ‘cause I was too broke to buy her records, and my college didn’t allow file-sharing software on their computers. Thomas’ songs always seemed to strike a peculiar balance between prettiness and a type of world-weary schadenfreude that made them all the more intriguing. In 2006, after years of touring, recording, and founding her own label, Sing-A-Long Records, Thomas had an opportunity to make a record with two of her very best friends, Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens. The album, These Friends of Mine, features the very best of all three artists and was the impetus for Matt Boyd’s documentary following the group of friends as they toured to support the record.
All The Way From Michigan Not Mars is fundamentally a classic tour doc, interweaving concert and public radio interview footage with spare moments in which Rosie recounts pivotal events that informed her unique artistic temperament. Growing up in Livonia, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit), Thomas’ musical family instilled in her a savage curiosity that has propelled her toward a variety of different forms of musical expression, most within the boundaries of an acoustic aesthetic. I’ll admit that the neo-folk movement has never been my bag, but what is most striking about Thomas’ monologues about her life is their almost universal appeal. The singer/songwriter delves into what makes her keep going, what she thinks about art, and why she remains so incredibly optimistic about everything.
What is best in All The Way From Michigan Not Mars is its way of capturing candid moments of levity onstage, as Witmer, Stevens and Thomas all take turns being adorably self-deprecating (but never too cute). In one interlude, Thomas tells the story of Sheila Saputo. Somewhere along the road to indie stardom, Thomas created Sheila as an alter-ego comedienne to entertain concertgoers before her performances. Sheila is, in many ways, a feminine embodiment of the awkward humor of Neil Hamburger, dressed in frumpy clothes, with a neck-brace and arm sling, and a pair of ridiculous coke-bottle glasses to compliment her surrealistically absurd act. The character illuminates the great emphasis Thomas puts upon play in both music and life.
Thomas’ fans will most definitely love this documentary, with its perfectly captured audio and extensive live footage, but that sort of goes without saying when talking about music docs. To those completely unfamiliar with Thomas (like my wife), however, the documentary should still prove both illuminating and highly entertaining. For a film about an independent artist with fairly obscure sensibilities to turn out so engrossing is a rare feat indeed.