No doubt this disc is going to be positioned in the bins as a documentary on the making of the two Billy Bragg & Wilco "Mermaid Avenue" records. I think there's a bit more to it. In a grand sense, this is a road movie. We have a person on a quest (of sorts). Billy Bragg comes to the United States to get a handle/perspective on his project: The creation and recording of some new songs, built on 40+ year old lyrics from Woody Guthrie that have been barely seen and never heard.
"Man In The Sand" has a few rough spots. As Bragg does his "Driveabout" in OK and TX, it's both funny and tragic watching him behave like he's on safari in the 1890s, rather than traveling to a not so foreign country in the 1990s. While trying to pay respect to Guthrie, Bragg's cultural/class snobbery is both intact and palpable (along with the irony). The filmmakers get a pat on the back for showing that bit.
The filmmakers do get it wrong in places. Frankly, I could have done without Bragg's home life, and instead used the time for delving into three areas/topics. First, show more of the music making process. Second, more explanation of how and why Wilco and Natalie Merchant were brought into the project. Third, if you are going to introduce the idea of creative strife at all, lay it all out. Don't dance around it, then suggest the reason you're going low key is that you don't want to overshadow the music. All of this can be easily attributed to being a BBC production. Meaning, we don't know the original intent of the documentary. On the other hand, I've come to expect nothing but top drawer from the Beeb. "Man In The Sand" falls short.
But, we were talking about a road movie. A road movie needs the participants to be in love with something elusive, and this movie has got it to spare. It is so obvious that Bragg, Wilco, and Merchant are totally in love with making the music. It's also wonderful to watch Nora (Woody's daughter) fall in love with her father, despite all of his shortcomings, on a level that she never could if he were alive.
This movie is about the search in (of) making music, and, what everybody finds. Not only do we get a glimpse of where the muse led Guthrie yesterday, but we see several people courting the muse today. By the end of the movie, the context Bragg was searching for begins to sink in. Perhaps more important, we see it's because of Nora and her stories, not Bragg following his road map and waiting for lightning to strike.
The disc looks and sounds wonderful. The five extra tracks (Bragg's demos for "Birds And Ships," "She Came Along To See," "I Guess I Planted," "Eisler On The Go," and "The Unwelcome Guest.") are certainly worth a spin. Fans of Bragg's may wince a bit, and Wilco worshippers are going to feel cheated. Those interested in the process of making music, period, are going to be the ones who come out ahead.