‘Now tell me about the audacity that exists in your mind and in the mind of your friends where you would think that someone would see a documentary about you and the process that you undergo to make, uh, this poison.’
– Tim Heidecker
You may have noticed at this point that I have a perverse fascination with movies made by or starring musicians. The reasons for that are pretty simple: I love music almost as much as I love movies and musicians seemingly have no sense of scope. Being a rock star should be enough for anyone, but it isn’t; you inevitably get an inflated ego and want to take over the world. For popular musicians, this manifests one of two ways: the artist route or the commercial route. The artist route centers around the idea that since you have mastered the craft of writing three-chord anthems, you have graduated to making films and you should be given free reign to explore any grandiose idea you may have had. This leads to debacles like Dylan’s tortuous Renaldo and Clara or Neil Young’s trippy Human Highway. These are typically interesting films that attract real talent and wind up being nigh-unreleasable shit (proof being that the two movies I mentioned above remain unavailable on DVD).
The commercial route typically assumes that the millions of people buy your records or tickets to your concerts will also buy millions of tickets to a (most likely) shitty, ill-concieved vehicle. It also assumes that whatever charisma your star will have on-stage will translate to the silver screen. This is hilarious because a) it rarely happens b) I can count the movies starring musicians as something other than themselves that made a bundle on one hand (if you exclude Elvis). Major studio mishaps in this ilk include The Jazz Singer (Neil Diamond), One Trick Pony (Paul Simon), Buster (Phil Collins) and Give My Regards to Broad Street (Paul McCartney). Nobody wants to see a movie starring Neil Diamond for the same reason nobody gave a shit when Michael Jordan started playing baseball or why Steven Seagal’s albums don’t go double platinum.
The third route is one that I haven’t seen taken before, although I’m sure someone can prove me wrong. While it’s one thing that fans won’t accept Mick Jagger playing, say, an 1890’s Australian gangster, it’s a whole other thing to assume that people will watch a documentary that places a musician in a context that absolutely fuck-all to do with his music career. That’s the gamble that Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan takes with Blood into Wine, a feature-length documentary chronicling Keenan’s sideline making wine in the Verde Valley. Granted, the stakes are lower for a doc. A fictional movie about a chorus of old people who sing contemporary pop songs (starring Helen Mirren, most likely) would probably be a bucket of shit, but as a documentary it works. One assumes that a film about a guy making wine would stand on its own two feet, regardless of the subject’s status as prog-rock demigod and object of nerdy worship.
Nerdy worship goes both ways; the film opens with Keenan being awkwardly interview by Tim & Eric, who planned to have Keanu Reeves on but have to make do with Keenan instead. From there we go to Verde Valley, Arizona, where the Tool frontman is setting up his very first crop of grapes with a wine expert named Eric Glomski. When asked why people like to drink wine, Keenan likens the molecular composition of a grape to the Supreme Being portrayed by Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element.
That’s about the point where I realized I had perhaps made a poor choice.
It turns out that, despite being a pretty dodgy idea for a movie, Blood into Wine is a perfectly entertaining documentary. The film is as much about building this vineyard (constantly referred to as Maynard’s vineyard, which is pretty badass as far as rhyming schemes go) in a landscape where few would expect anything but gnarled bushes rather than an exploration of what a famous musician does on his time off – and that’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. Early on in the film, Glomski’s wife describes Keenan’s first visit to the valley as ‘a guy coming out of a long black car with a girl wearing a leather dog collar’. This fact is immediately disputed by Keenan, who wants to establish that his presence there is purely as a wine connoisseur – not an out-of-control, Ozzy-like rock star. Of course, this footage is immediately followed by a series of street interviews featuring dozens of Tool t-shirt-clad people fawning over Keenan as he signs bottles of wine at a farmer’s market.
In fact, the film’s major flaw comes between Keenan and the rest of the wine enthusiasts and professionals who appear in the film. Somewhere along the line, the filmmakers seem to have concluded (not unwisely) that the people who were going to watch the movie for Keenan might not necessarily be satisfied with an in-depth account of how a vineyard operates on a daily basis. While Glomski is quite comfortable and interesting in front of the camera, he delivers a fairly straight explanation of his day-to-day activities and experience. When Keenan is on camera, he alternates between being the wine guy and delving into Adult Swim-type humour in which he is the awkward straight man. He hangs out with friends like the aforementioned Milla Jovovich and Patton Oswalt, shooting the shit about things only tangentially related to wine or his music career. These segments are not altogether unfunny but they give the impression that Keenan is playing a character throughout; he comes off as the film’s perpetually deadpan host rather than its subject.
It’s certainly got more depth when dealing with the production of wine than the production of wine by a famous rock star. In fact, there are stretches of the film where you wonder if the film was made because Keenan made wine or if Keenan’s in the film because he puts a recognizable face on a difficult-to-market film about wine production in the Arizona desert. As the quote from Heidecker (playing a holier-than-thou public-access host, in a none-too-surprising casting choice) at the top illustrates, even the filmmakers seem less than confident that there’s an audience for the film. The comic segments serve only to reinforce this lack of confidence, adding padding to a film that barely contains enough material for feature length. Towards the end, the two directors (Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke) appear to offer Keenan the chance to turn the film into a TV show. In what’s clearly a scripted scene, Keenan refuses categorically and states that he’s not much of a people person and wants to get on with his life. The scene seems deliberately placed there to dispel the film’s most obvious criticism: why is this a film? Why isn’t it a Food Network series? Because Maynard doesn’t feel like it.
I personally don’t know shit about wine except that I like to drink it and it turns my teeth purple; in that same vein, I don’t know shit about Maynard James Keenan except that his music plays a lot when I hang out with stoners or hang out with science students. The film is accessible enough about both subjects to become more than just the extremely niche project it sounds like without really instilling me with a particular desire to go out and learn more about wine or listen to Tool. In a way, it verges on the intrusive promotional tool as the film’s timeline takes us closer and closer to the first batch’s launch but it remains a fairly interesting, engrossing documentary.
So why does it exist?
Judging by the film’s practically non-existent publicity (it appears to have been independently distributed and exhibited in one-off showings), the appeal of Keenan wasn’t enough to get the film seen. I wouldn’t have guessed that the Tool crowd would be into wine and I certainly would not have guessed that the film’s intentions are more noble that simply showing a man who’s good at being a rock star also being good at making wine. Glomski and Keenan certainly show a vested interest in their own wine production but also in putting the many vineyards of Arizona on the map. It’s essentially a long promo tool with heightened production values rather than the misguided vanity project I pegged it to be beforehand. I can’t say that it particularly succeeds with either of its intended audiences but it’s certainly not an uninteresting documentary.
(I, for my part, have learned the hard way that documentaries are a poor fit for Why Does It Exist? Life lessons all around.)