Truth may not always be stranger than fiction, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper. Just ask Rolf Belgum, the Minneapolis filmmaker whose latest feature-length documentary, Driver 23, was shot on a budget of $700.
"I'm amazed at what passes for 'low-budget indie films' these days," says Belgum, whose work will be screened Friday at Intermedia Arts at 7:30 p.m. "At some of these [indie film] festivals, you'll be going up against million-dollar films that are somehow still considered 'underground.'"
In the spirit of the most earnest DIY director, Belgum spent a year and a half--sans crew and equipment, just a handheld video camera--getting inside the mind of Dan Cleveland, a Minneapolitan courier/rocker whose raw exploits are an uncanny, real-life mutation of Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. From basement rehearsals with his Ryan's-ready metal band, Dark Horse, to quiet reflections in the bathtub (à la Tap's Mick Shrimpton), the film digs into Cleveland's true rock & roll story with Cassavetes-esque candor. Not only are the results strangely spellbinding, they're often hysterical. Interviews with Cleveland's on-again/off-again bandmates read like the sharpest of parody--e.g., "Dan's got a sweet voice...when he stays in his range"--except that they're real.
"A lot of people think it's made-up or scripted because Dan's delivery is so tight," says Belgum. "But it's all real. He feels that comfortable in front of a camera." Indeed, with the aid of assorted anti-depressants, Cleveland is an organic deadpan delight whose passion for amateur physics is matched only by his penchant for goateed power chords and self-analysis. As Belgum puts it, "He is his own favorite subject."
Though local screenings have been few and far between, Driver 23 (formerly known as Frontman) seems to have already infiltrated elite rock circles in the Pacific Northwest. A couple of members of the stalwart Seattle band The Walkabouts, former Twin Cities residents themselves, got hold of a video copy last year. They reportedly took to sharing the tape with various friends who came to visit their recording studio, including members of grunge-band survivors Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Charmed by the film's priceless vérité banter, even Eddie Vedder's pals are apparently stunned to learn that Cleveland's not putting on an act. Can a cult following of Spinal proportions be far behind?
To his credit, Belgum opted not to directly engage any broader agendas in the film, even though elements like Cleveland's interracial marriage or the anatomy of the local rock scene provided ample opportunity. "Had I wanted to apply for grant money to fund my movie, that would've been the way to go," he quips. "But Dan's personality is so overwhelming, there's hardly any room for anything else."
The buzz on Driver 23 could prove to be a boon for Cleveland's musical projects, too, but don't look for Dark Horse to be opening for Badditude at Ryan's any time soon. Since the film wrapped, Cleveland has relocated to the West Coast to reunite with his wife and, presumably, to rock harder.
Driver 23 screens Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Intermedia Arts.