Sunday, July 4, 2004

'Twenty to Life' documentary takes Cincinnati filmmaker almost that long

By Margaret A. McGurk
Enquirer staff writer

Radical poet John Sinclair takes the stage at a blues club in Clarksdale, Miss.
Photo courtesy of Steve Gebhardt
In 1991, Cincinnati filmmaker Steve Gebhardt thought he could finish his documentary about radical poet John Sinclair within a couple of years.

His estimate, he admits, was a little off.

Twenty to Life: The Life and Thought of John Sinclair will make its hometown premiere Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown.

Elusive funding and competing work demands account for most of the decade-long delay, yet both filmmaker and subject happily stuck it out to create their combination history lesson and performance film.

In the 1960s, Sinclair was a well-known Michigan-based poet and political agitator who founded the White Panther Party. He also managed the radical rock group MC5 (the subject of their own 2002 documentary, MC5: A True Testimonial).

• Born October 2, 1941, Davison, Mich., just outside Flint. (Sinclair's mother taught eighth-grade English to filmmaker Michael Moore.)
• Attended Albion College, University of Michigan at Flint, and Wayne State University in Detroit. Dropped out of graduate school in 1965.
• Founding member of Detroit Artists' Workshop, marking its 40th anniversary in November.
• Numerous books, including Guitar Army, Music & Politics and Fattening Frogs for Snakes: Delta Sound Suite.
• Albums include If I Could Be with You, Full Moon Night, Full Circle, Steady Rollin' Man: Live, and Fattening Frogs for Snakes.
• Oct. 22-23, will perform during the festival marking the grand opening of the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
• Web site.
• Advice to young activists: "I'd like to see 'em all vote. That would be a good start."
What: Twenty to Life: The Life and Thought of John Sinclair
Where: Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., downtown.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Cost: Free with museum admission, $4.50-$6.50
Information: 345-8400
Twenty to Life details how, after Sinclair was sentenced to prison for 10 years for marijuana possession in 1969, 15,000 people turned out for the daylong Free John Now Rally on Dec. 10, 1971, at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor for a concert featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, poet Alan Ginsburg and many others. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair's release.

Gebhardt, who had worked on the Ono-Lennon film Fly, shot the 1971 concert but the resulting film, Ten for Two, was never commercially released.

Twenty to Life encompasses sprawling history, including the 1967 race riots in Detroit and the 1968 Democratic Convention, as well as Sinclair's present-day life as a pro-marijuana activist, poet, radio host and jazz performer.

"How do you turn this guy into who he is today?" Gebhardt says of his challenge in compiling the film, which he is submitting to a number of film festivals.

"Did he get beyond the two joints and 10 years? He did, and we knew that and the poetry became the vehicle for describing that.

"We stretched the upper and lower limits of what is possible and then made it look right," Gebhardt says.

Sinclair, who lives in Amsterdam when he is not working in the United States, pronounces himself thrilled with the movie. He cannot be at the premiere; he will be teaching at a Maryland arts camp.


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