There is no common point of reference for describing the sound of the band Morphine. Comprised of a drummer, a baritone saxophonist, and a singer who played a bass with two strings and a slide, Morphine was a band without peer. Nobody sounded like Morphine. What’s more, I’m not sure anyone could if they tried. Not only did the band consist of three members/instruments, one instrument was seemingly stripped of half of its possibilities. The end result was a sum greater than its parts. Morphine’s sound is grand, not sparse. Ironic in their minimalism, Morphine sounds sophisticated while also sounding like the greatest bar band to never play a cover. Call it the soundtrack to a gum shoe detective novel or music to seduce a roomful of women, Morphine was a band of singular style and sound and one of the greatest alternative bands of the 1990s.
Morphine: Journey of Dreams is not a great introduction to the bands music, but it is the perfect documentary for the band. While there are plenty of details and stories shared in director Mark Shuman’s film, mystery remains. It is because of this treatment that the film succeeds as a tribute to the band. Morphine was dark, sexy, and mysterious. This film pays tribute to that while also charting the formation of the band, the sequence of their studio albums, and how they caught-on with the rise of alternative music in the nineties. But, the film does stop short of giving all the gory details. For example, they do discuss how Mark Sandman started experimenting with bass strings on guitars and the song that gave him the idea, but not why he only used two strings or how/when he incorporated the slide.
Interspersed with the reading of old tour diaries from saxophonist Dana Colley, the film proceeds chronologically from the bands formation to their untimely end in 1999. All former members of the band appear, as well as their former manager, tour manager, Mark Sandman’s girlfriend, and an appearance from Henry Rollins. Their individual narratives tie the film together with video footage of live performances and interviews with the late Sandman. If you know anything about Morphine, you probably know that the band ended when Mark Sandman died of a heat attack onstage at a festival in Italy. Obviously, this had a profound impact on the members of the band and their friends and families. It is dealt with here tenderly and I admire the filmmakers for capturing these difficult and heartbreaking moments with grace.
Because I’ve always loved the band, I found myself wanting more from the concept of a Morphine documentary. I wanted to hear more artists and musicians discussing their love of the band. I wanted it pointed out that other than Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, no other rock and roll bass player has ever played with such a unique personal style. I wanted it pointed out to the uninitiated that no one sounded anything like this amazing band. A fact that is also a testament to what the word “alternative” meant in 1990 versus what it means today. In 1990, no one sounded like Morphine, thus they were classified as alternative. Today, alternative is mainstream and all the bands sound the same (and of course, nothing like Morphine).
If you’re a Morphine fan, you have to see this film. It will drive you to binge their entire discography and seek out live performance videos on YouTube. If you’re unfamiliar with Morphine, track down their 1993 album Cure for Pain. After the third or fourth song when you ask yourself “What are these guys all about?” watch this film.
– J. Kevin Lynch