CULTURE VULTURE: “Dear Governor Cuomo” @ The Linda, Albany, 12/7/12

Jon Bowermaster and Alan Chartock
Jon Bowermaster and Alan Chartock

Review and photographs by J Hunter

By traditional standards, Jon Bowermaster’s film “Dear Governor Cuomo” is a logistical miracle: The idea for the film – and the all-star concert living inside it – was hatched in March of this year. Nine months may be a long time in politics, but even in this age of flash mobs and YouTube, that’s basically the blink of an eye when the task is to make a movie that looks this good and flows this well. There are flaws, but none of them have to do with the film’s overall message: “Governor Cuomo, don’t let this happen here!”

The promotional literature calls this film a cross between “The Last Waltz” and “An Inconvenient Truth”; in the Q&A following the screening at The Linda, Bowermaster copped to coining that comparison. While “Cuomo” isn’t as star-studded as “Waltz,” some of the artists’ involved (Medeski Martin & Wood, the Felice Brothers and Me’Shell Ndegeocello, to name three) definitely have cachet in the alternative-music world, and the involvement of legends like Joan Osborne, John Sebastian and concert musical director Natalie Merchant rings bells for those of us with silver in our hair. A closer political parallel would be the 1979 film “No Nukes,” although Bowermaster rejects that comparison because Nukes “was almost pure music, and didn’t have any other information other than ‘Nukes are bad.’” He’s wrong, but more on that in a bit.

Greater Nippertown saw some of “Cuomo” before it even made it to the screen. The anti-fracking protest that takes up the film’s first section happened outside and inside the State House; the concert was held last May in the Hart Theatre at The Egg. And for anyone who wants to start in about “Hollywood liberals telling us what to do with our lives,” let me correct you: These are homegrown New York liberals! (No “outside agitators” here, thank you very much!) All the activists and musicians appearing in the film are from the Empire State, as is actor/activist Mark Ruffalo, whose open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo is the basis for the film’s title.

“We comes as your friends, Governor Cuomo,” Ruffalo reads to the packed house, a clear note of respect in his voice. “We are firmly, but gently, asking the Governor to be our hero!”

If we use Ruffalo’s last big-budget blockbuster as a guide, a “hero” is someone who saves you from impending destruction by a sinister force. But to hear speeches by grassroots organizers and interviews with Ruffalo, Merchant and biologist Sandra Steingraber, imminent destruction is what is waiting in the wake of proposed hydrofracking operations in New York’s Southern Tier. Steingraber breaks down what else is in the Marcellus Shale besides natural gas, making it clear that if you aren’t frightened, you should be. Merchant – who grew up in Jamestown, just across the border from one area in Pennsylvania where fracking is occurring – breaks down crying in the middle of talking about effects she’s already seen in her beloved western New York.

Cuomo tells “inconvenient truths” about fracking throughout the film. This may be rocket science, but it’s fed to you in bite-sized pieces of white text on a black screen with a low, rumbling harmonic underneath it. Both the physical and financial effects are personalized through a letter written by Ohio housewife Jamie Frederick, presented at the concert in a passionate reading by actor/director Melissa Leo. The physical damage Frederick’s letter describes as her body takes in more and more poison is simply sickening, as is her doctors’ inability to figure out what was causing these horrific changes. On top of that, Frederick adds that because of the fracking operation next to her property, the value of the house she and her husband moved into in 2009 has gone from $125,000 to Zero.

As powerful as Leo’s presentation and Steingraber’s chemical breakdowns are, the economic arguments put forth in Cuomo are its most effective weapons: The jobs ballyhooed by fracking proponents are mostly held by non-residents, and any resulting financial boom only benefits a few and has a very short shelf life… which is more than can be said for whatever’s left in the ground when the job is done. What’s more, a simulation of the criss-crossing pipelines needed to move the natural gas from the proposed drilling area makes New York look like Texas, and the thought of the farmland and forests that would have to “make room” for all that simply makes your head hurt. During the Q&A, Fracking Action communications director John Armstrong added that any damage to existing infrastructure (i.e. roads and bridges) that’s caused by the armies of heavy machinery needed for the process would be left to local governments already over-stretched by too little tax revenue.

All of this happens over a fast-moving, well-photographed 75 minutes, including snippets from the concert… and the critical word in that last sentence is “snippets.” Apart from a closing full-cast take on David Byrne’s “Heaven,” Bowermaster doesn’t let one single number play all the way through. We see a flash of violinist Mazz Swift showing off the fiery playing & singing style we saw when Burnt Sugar played Proctors’ GE Theatre early this year; we get a sizzling blast of Toshi Reagon torching the Hart with “Down to the Water”; and we catch Medeski Martin & Wood soaring in the electric space that is their second home. But instead of letting these (and other) divine performances play out, the music is either used as bridges between facts or background for other segments. This latter tactic is used to great effect when Judy Hyman’s haunting solo-violin take on “The Weight of Water” plays over quotes from the governor himself – quotes that would indicate he would not support fracking if it was shown to be damaging.

All this might be Bowermaster trying to make “Dear Governor Cuomo” the anti-“No Nukes,” sacrificing the music for the message. Despite the director’s instistence on the subject, substantive messages were delivered in Nukes (albeit without someone like Steingraber, whose segments are impeccable in their simplicity). But the fact is none of the music in “Cuomo” could be confused with James Taylor & Carly Simon’s happy-go-lucky duet version of “Mockingbird.” Every song that’s sung in “Cuomo” – particularly Merchant’s “Motherland,” Citizen Cope’s “Hurricane Waters” and a sorrowful take on the Low Anthem’s “To Ohio” – relates directly or indirectly to the film’s message. Letting the film run another 15 minutes so we could see the full fruits of the musicians’ labors is not much to ask.

Bowermaster admits that the music was “a lure” to bring in more viewers. “They may want to see Natalie sing, or they may see Joan Osborne, or they may want to see Toshi Reagon.” That’s all good, but like as not, the fans of these artists are going to see their favorite musicians’ inclusion in the film for what it is: a ploy, and a reason to reject this film’s message out of hand, regardless of its validity. Like Governor Cuomo’s recent dissembling on whether he’ll lift the current ban on fracking, Bowermaster’s strategy is a gamble that I don’t think will pay off in the long run. And for a film that needs to be seen, that’s a shame… and an inconvenient truth.

Alan Chartock and Natalie Merchant
Alan Chartock and Natalie Merchant

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