Like Some Kind Of Monster, the highly entertaining two-and-a-half-hour documentary that chronicled the trials and tribulations of being a member of the Metallica juggernaut, Mark Kozelek: On Tour is a long look (clocking in at nearly two hours) at a Bay Area artist with enough experience and dedicated followers to justify a thorough examination of his craft.
But that's about all the two films have in common, with On Tour veering far away from Metallica's high-priced and often hilarious drama, choosing instead to focus on the staid, slice-of-life simplicity experienced on Kozelek's travels in Europe and North America over the past two years. So instead of watching a volatile band blow $40,000 a month on a therapist, during On Tour we see a subdued guy in his 40s using music as therapy -- specifically finding inspiration in the nylon-string guitar that acts as the lone instrumental weapon on the solo tours being documented.
As is the case with a lot of things that have come out on Kozelek's own Caldo Verde Records imprint, On Tour is ultimately a for-fans-only release featuring songs that most of us have already heard. (Though it's worth noting, superfans, that it also includes a score that he wrote and performed.)
Not that concert films aren't capable of wooing unsuspecting listeners -- and anyone who's ever taken one of the uninitiated to one of his shows knows that Kozelek has the skills to do a lot of on-the-spot convincing -- but that's the thing: On Tour isn't so much a concert film as it is a tour diary. (To be fair, on the cover it's simply promoted as "A Documentary.") So instead of trying to create any kind of cohesion between each of the songs and/or tell a story with the footage, On Tour just kind of throws everything into a blender, intercutting performances with shots of traveling via planes, trains, and automobiles. In fact, the driving and flying seem to be as important as the music to filmmaker Joshua Stoddard, which probably shouldn't come as too much of a shock, seeing as how he doubles as Kozelek's tour manager.
Shot entirely in black and white, On Tour is a pleasantly arty film, with scenes of snowy towns, Kozelek kicking a soccer ball around with kids on the street, and so much European B-roll that you can almost taste the cigarettes and cappuccino. However, at 116 minutes long, it can also drag a bit at times, especially if you're not already familiar with the music. And old-school fans patiently waiting for more Red House Painters tunes might also find themselves a tad frustrated, since only three RHP songs, "Void," "Katy Song," and "Trailways," are included in the film, and they've all entered and exited before the halfway point.
Things do get inspiring when Kozelek talks about his interest in classical guitar (and players like Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream, and Ana Vidović) and how playing nylon strings have re-energized him as a musician. But unfortunately there's a noticeable lack of dialogue in the film, and thus revelations are few and far between, unless of course you want to count Kozelek getting a manicure as a bombshell. It's fun seeing photos of him as a kid, and he does briefly talk about his family and friends, but there just isn't much personality revealed here. Granted, maybe that's the side of Kozelek that will be exposed in some other documentary about his entire career (warm up the Caldo Verde machine!), but On Tour almost seems to go out of its way to show how mundane and lonely a solo acoustic tour can be, from shots of him nursing a yogurt and tea by himself in an airport to seeing him in his hotel ironing a shirt and brushing his teeth. There are a few surprising moments, including one where Kozelek is caught laughing hysterically at a story that unfortunately we're only privy to half of, but it seems likely that there was some comedy gold left on the cutting-room floor: Kozelek is known for poking fun at certain audience members (read: the ones who yell things between songs), but only two instances show up here, and they're relegated to the end of the film.
All that said, On Tour ends up being a testament to Kozelek's musical abilities, solidifying his position as a truly gifted writer and performer. Because in lieu of any narrative or compelling action, he's more than capable of keeping his completist fanbase happy with memorable performances of songs like "Moorestown," "Ålesund," and the aforementioned "Katy Song," which is gloriously rendered at a church in Bologna.