The Pleasure Bus

"When I was a little kid, surfing and practicing drums, it was like, 'Man, I want to be on a tour bus,'" laughs Innocent Criminals drummer Dean Butterworth near the start of the new documentary Pleasure and Pain . "Now it's like that's all I do is live on a tour bus." It's an old complaint, really -- sucks to be a rock star, boy -- and few others have ever rung quite so hollow. At least now, though, Butterworth and his ilk have some proof to back up their claims.

Filmed by famed rock photographer Danny Clinch over the span of nearly a year, the 89-minute Pleasure follows Butterworth's band and its charismatic leader, roots-rock icon Ben Harper, around the world and back to their Southern California base. Clinch stakes out a spot on the band's claustrophobic submarine of a bus and generally captures the hurry-up-and-wait drudgery of a low-rent tour schedule. The singer struggles to construct a domino fall in a moving bus; the band and its crew stop off for a 3 a.m. Krispy Kreme fix; Harper locks horns with an often obtuse press corps. ("Is it easy to work with me?" he asks, repeating one clueless interviewer's question. "Boy, you're asking the wrong cat.") Throughout, Harper muses on the profound ("I don't think God would have much to do with modern-day religion; I really don't.") and the profoundly mundane ("You sculpt a 'fro," he explains to a French journalist backstage at a Paris concert. "'Fros take, like, five hours of preparation"), and Clinch and his co-director and editor, British filmmaker Sam Lee, even include the otherwise tremendously talented Harper's second-rate impression of Dr. Evil. Perhaps never before has a rockumentary worked so hard to bring to life the utter dreariness of a rock-and-roll tour.

Not that Pleasure and Pain itself is dull -- far from it. Alternating between digital video and film (including footage from an old Super 8 bought for a buck at a flea market), Clinch and Lee mix grainy color with gorgeous black-and-white, their minimal equipment and crew (generally just Clinch and an assistant) allowing for access to moments they couldn't otherwise have caught. The result is a surprisingly intimate look at the life of a not-quite-rock star. Clinch manages to worm his way into Harper's world, getting the 33-year-old singer to open up on just about everything in his personal life save for his kids and his then-blossoming relationship with actress Laura Dern. ("That was off limits," Clinch says, ruefully.) No matter: Harper's back-story is more than interesting enough to make up for the loss of the gossip fodder.

Raised in the foothills of Southern California's Inland Empire, the singer spent most of his childhood at his grandparents' folk-music store, and he takes Clinch back home for a visit with his folksinger mother and his elderly grandfather, a white-bearded wizard of a man who still runs the family store. Harper's trip home forms the beating heart of Pleasure, with the singer reminiscing emotionally, and sometimes awkwardly, about his alcoholic, absentee father, then joining his mother on Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" -- astonishingly enough, their first duet ever. "He really did let his guard down," Clinch says.

For everything that Pleasure and Pain is, what it isn't, really, is a concert film -- surprising, perhaps, given Harper's near-messianic reputation as a performer. The live shots that Clinch and Lee provide serve mainly as transitional segments, with moments from shows around the world spliced together over the course of a single song. "I didn't really want to make a concert film," Clinch explains. "I didn't want to do an hour, an hour and a half worth of Ben in concert. I'd rather just go see him in concert." Good point. And anyway, everyone knows the tour bus is where all the fun is.

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Dan Reines