Beautiful Losers

No less highly self-regarded than Billy Brown (or Vincent Gallo), the Minneapolitan subject of the documentary Driver 23 may not be an artist but he's definitely a performer. Courier by day and rocker by night, Dan Cleveland is a full-time one-man band, although, in his glory days, he did serve as frontman in the group Dark Horse, a "progressive metal" outfit modeled on Queensrÿche and renowned for having headlined a show at Ryan's. Say this for Cleveland: He's dedicated to his craft. Designing an elaborate (and woefully ineffective) rope-and-pulley system to lug his gear out of the cramped basement where he rehearses, medicating himself with a specially calibrated mix of Zoloft and Prozac, shrieking into the mic like a man possessed, and determining to record his debut album by any means necessary, the long-haired frontman philosophizes his career every backward step of the way. "It's kinda weird to quote scripture," he says at one point, before likening his iron will to that of the prophet Ezekiel.

Director Rolf Belgum is just as driven but, infinitely more talented, he seems to be going places. Shot on video for a grand total of $700, Driver 23 has continued to build up speed since its local premiere at the Fine Line in February of '97. If you haven't already heard, legend has it that Eddie Vedder was fond of screening the tape on the Pearl Jam tour bus, and indie-film guru John Pierson recently stumped for the movie on an episode of his Split Screen cable series. And after its one-night-only showing at Intermedia Arts four months ago, another celebrity fan, U Film director Al Milgrom, helped convince Belgum to bump his video master up to 35mm for a slot in the Mpls./St. Paul International Film Festival--all of which the filmmaker has used to stimulate interest among national distributors (including, coincidentally, Lions Gate Films, the indie company behind Buffalo '66).

Conversely, Driver 23's protagonist remains stuck in first gear. Hobbled by a history of leg problems, clogged sinuses, tension-related gastritis, apparent hypochondria, and abundant bad taste, Cleveland nevertheless credits his depressive "disorder" as a musical influence. While his white-haired mother looks on politely, the rocker unleashes his mistitled "Schizophrenia," a squealing din that, as he says, "switches back and forth rather violently between moods." Later, when Dark Horse bites the dust, Cleveland reveals his optimistic side. "It's not a dead end, it's a turn," he says. "It's like hitting a dead end but, see, that's where people sometimes screw up. They see this dead end in front of them but it's not really a dead end, it just looks like one. If they turn..." Driver 23 is as funny a rockumentary as the fabricated Spinal Tap, not least for the tragicomedy of Cleveland's failure to notice that his most deeply personal feelings are being rendered in half-formed musical clichés and one overwrought metaphor after another.

Open your heart and let this fool rush in: Writer-director-star Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66
Open your heart and let this fool rush in: Writer-director-star Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66

Which is to say that this hilarious nonfiction is also plenty melodramatic. Like Buffalo '66, Driver 23 downshifts in its third act to become a poignant love story, as Cleveland goes off the meds while his lighthearted wife, Shelly, a part-time clown laid off from her job, ponders a move out West. Still, Belgum remains in command of the narrative through his penetrating questions from behind the camera ("Would you say that the CD is more important than the marriage right now?") and his razor-sharp editing. A scene of Cleveland's dog taunting his pet ferret clinches the film's Darwinian theme as surely as Belgum casts doubt upon the rocker's biochemical instability by cutting to his mom's recollection of her harsh disciplinary methods. (As in Buffalo '66, the narcissist's parentage appears a major factor.) Then there's the bravura sequence that weds Cleveland's Ezekiel quotation to the image of him weightlifting with arms outstretched, Belgum's overhead shot likening these exercises to a Jesus Christ pose.

Speaking of divine masochism, only Scorsese's The King of Comedy digs deeper into the flailing artist's delusions of grandeur--and that's a work of fiction. Cleveland is the genuine article as well as a truly inventive character: Like Comedy's Rupert Pupkin, the frontman creates an entire world in his basement, and if he can't quite lug it above ground, well, he can at least remain the king of his own dank castle. And damned if that dominion isn't the thing that keeps him going. Belgum clearly respects Cleveland's endurance, never puncturing his fantasy by, say, interviewing the half-dozen Ryan's patrons present at his big show. So who's to say this man is not a brilliant artist? And who knows: Might the success of Driver 23 give rise to the rocker's cellar dreamscape, delivering the courier back to the stage? To borrow a phrase from another Minneapolitan character: Maybe Dan Cleveland is gonna make it after all.

Dan Cleveland will appear in person at Town Hall Brewery on Friday and Saturday at 9:30 p.m. following U Film's 7:15 p.m. screenings of Driver 23; for more information, see A List, p. 46.

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