New Orleanians know longtime resident John Sinclair more as a multi-tasking guardian of the arts than a counter-culture warrior. The wide swath he cut after moving to Louisiana in the early ’90s (he now splits his time between Amsterdam and Oxford, Mississippi), included simultaneous stints as WWOZ disc jockey, poet, performer, archivist, MC and author of portraits of blues and R&B legends in the pages of this magazine.
In his home state of Michigan, Sinclair will always be remembered as a political agitator of the highest order, managing proto-punks the MC5, founding the radical White Panther Party and being sentenced to 10 years in prison for the possession of two joints, resulting in the John Lennon and Yoko Ono song, “John Sinclair,” which helped free him after two years
His recently re-published 1972 book, Guitar Army details those revolutionary times, but Steve Gebhardt’s newly completed documentary, Twenty to Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair weaves Sinclair’s past and present into seamless high focus through music, archival film footage, interviews with friends and family, and, most pleasing to Sinclair, his poetry and performances.
“Steve made the documentary of my freedom rally when he was with John and Yoko in ’71,” says Sinclair. “Twenty years later, in 1991, he got the idea to make a picture about what happened after the freedom rally, and that’s where the title comes from.”
Initially, Sinclair was resistant to focusing on his past, having just ratcheted his performing and recording career into high gear with the formation of his band the Blues Scholars. But Gebhardt struck a balance between past and present that makes the film all the more captivating.
“Steve figured out ways to go from the story to excerpts from my poems that comment on the story,” says Sinclair. “It’s really exciting to me because a lot of times I didn’t even think of the poems that way. But he’ll find a piece of a poem I wrote and put it in between two scenes that illustrate it.”
Sinclair curated the impressive soundtrack himself, mixing his own productions of the Up, MC5 and Mitch Ryder with lifelong musical cornerstones Howlin’ Wolf, Sun Ra and New Orleans favorites the Wild Magnolias and Rebirth Brass Band.
“For an American poet to have a movie, I couldn’t be happier,” says Sinclair. “At 87 minutes, it’s got everything from footage of my first communion and the Detroit riots to the recording of my 2001 blues album that Andre Williams produced.”
The film makes its area debut at the Green Room in Covington on October 12 followed by an in-store the next day at Louisiana Music Factory. For additional screenings and information go to JohnSinclair.us.