Editor's note: This review by Jule Banville originally appeared on New West's blog in 2011; in light of Chris Sand's farewell show and documentary screening, we present it for your enjoyment. (And check out Kate Whittle's writeup of how Chris Sand feels about the documentary now.)
If there’s one guy who’d be at home in Montana, it’s an Obama-lovin’, cowboy-hat-wearin’, hip-hoppin’, gay-friendly guy from a town in North Dakota too small to have a grocery or a restaurant.
But Dunn Center does have a bar, the Ilo, and it does have Chris Sand, aka Sandman the Rappin’ Cowboy. Both the town and the guy star in “Roll-Out Cowboy,” a film festival darling screening at the Roxy Theater Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m.
Sand actually is at home in Montana, mainly because it was his home in the formative years. These were the ones in Ronan during middle and high school, when he says living on the Flathead Rez exposed him to the urban vibe of the ’80s that still throbs in his skinny white boy soul.
The 74-minute documentary that exposes that soul follows Sand around for a year as he tries to live in two worlds. In one, he’s a creative, wandering performer, a modern mashup of Woody Guthrie and LL Cool J on the road and breaking hearts from Chicago to Des Moines to Olympia. In the other, he’s just trying to fit in at home, which happens to be an old falling-down farmhouse. He bought it for a thousand bucks in a town of 122 people, mostly Lutherans older than his parents.
In Dunn Center, he’s got a tour bus that doesn’t work but, if it did, would probably get 8 miles to the gallon. He’s got an outdoor bathtub (natch), a post office box and neighbors who don’t really get him, but seem to like him when the cameras roll. He gets blue there. He tries to blend in there.
Above all, where Dunn Center is concerned, Chris Sand is committed. That’s saying something, according to several of his old girlfriends. Their appearance in the film is one of its high points, a fun set of edits that breaks up a movie that, at times, feels a lot like its subject’s life: meandering, moody, a bit lost, but often entertaining and pocked with a few killer rhymes.
It’s clear filmmaker Elizabeth Lawrence isn’t one of those documentarians striving for something Frenchy like a denouement. There’s no built-in tension or much manipulation of what must be hundreds of hours of tape in order to make Sand’s life fit a rigid story structure. Even the breakup of Sand’s friends and partners on tour, a hip-hop comedy duo called the Mustaches, is dealt with in a them’s-the-breaks fashion. It happens. More stuff happens. Chris Sand is a real talent. The end.
But that whole bit about Chris Sand being a real talent? He is. At its best, this is a movie about how an unusual performer thinks and lives and thinks about living. It’s small that way, in a nice way, in a way that makes you want to go to the Filling Station in Bozeman some night when he’s there, because some day, he might just get bigger than the Filling Station in Bozeman and you can say you saw him when.