Director Mark Shuman is, in a way, lucky. By telling the story of Morphine, the Boston band that released a quintet of albums of cloudy, sexy blues-based rock during its tragically short life span, he was able to keep his focus tight. There aren’t decades of historical material to wade through nor does he have to balance the biographical details while making a case for their continued relevance. The framework is there, unfortunately fixed and finite. All he needs to do is spell out the facts.
Morphine made an instant mark on music listeners of the world by way of their unusual instrumentation. Leader Mark Sandman played a two-string bass guitar that was capable of some impressively warped sounds, thanks in part to his use of a slide on the neck. His bandmates Dana Colley and Billy Conway backed him up on baritone sax and drums, respectively. Combined with Sandman’s smoky vocals and his Beat poetry-inspired lyrics, their albums were almost hallucinatory, or at least capable of inciting a fit of delirium tremens.
The band garnered breathless critical praise following the release of their second LP Cure For Pain and earned a well-deserved reputation for their sweaty, sexy live performances. Both kept them on the road almost continuously for the better part of four years, acceding to fan demand and their label’s hopes for some kind of commercial breakthrough. The pace was sadly halted in 1999 when Sandman collapsed onstage during a performance in Italy and soon after, passed away.
Morphine: Journey Of Dreams, Shuman’s documentary, follows the band’s path with fine detail, working in interviews from Sandman’s former bandmates (including original drummer Jerome Deupree), famous fans Steve Berlin and Henry Rollins, and, most crucially, the still-mourning former girlfriend Sabine Hrechdakian. They all make a solid case for Morphine’s importance in the post-grunge music world and their distinct sound.
One of Shuman’s greatest accomplishments here is, with the help of Leah Marino and Mike Mariconda, the editing. The film moves with much the same trajectory that the band’s career did. It starts off humbly and slowly, walking viewers through Sandman early days in the Boston scene where he was known as a prodigiously talented and insanely prolific musician. By the time, Cure For Pain was released, sending the low blues-rock trio, into a whirlwind of critical buzz and sold out concert dates, the pace of the movie turns almost breathless. The flurry of activity that Morphine and their crew got wrapped in starts rushing by. But as it works towards the group’s tragic end, the editorial team eases up on the throttle again. The seconds start to tick by calmly, with the addition of other talking heads, all of whom help paint an exacting portrait of this terrible turn of events.
For good and for ill, what Journey of Dreams is missing is some kind of outside voice to make a claim for the group’s relevance and continued importance. While that does mean we don’t have to listen to a bloviating critic on his/her soapbox about why Morphine was great, it also means we don’t get an perspective on just how different the band sounded as compared to the Alternative Nation wunderkinds of the day. When placed up against, the distortion-heavy angst of the post-Nevermind rabble, they couldn’t help but remain a stark and mature contrast.
The film ultimately succeeds by being the sensitive, dynamic portrait of a band that needn’t have ended as quickly as it did. God bless the work that Colley, Deupree, and Conway have been doing keeping the legacy alive with Orquesta Morphine and their other memorial projects, but even they have to know that it’s just not the same. Journey of Dreams serves to cement that idea. There will never be another band like Morphine and another talent like Sandman, sad facts that should be bemoaned and celebrated equally.