This documentary resembles a crazy, patchwork quilt, thus, more so than usual, your reactions to it are likely to be shaped by what interests and expectations you bring with you. On the surface, it is a documentary on the making of the two `Mermaid Ave' albums - a project initiated by Nora Guthrie to resurrect a portion of the thousands of lyrics that her father, Woody, had left behind, sans music, and put them before the public. She asked Billy Bragg to take on the project because she felt that his passion and politics was a match to those of her late father. At some point, (left unexplained by the documentary) the band Wilco came into the project as collaborators with Bragg. The film, therefore, has an overabundance of strong characters, all with devoted followings, that it has to try to blend into the mix - Bragg, Wilco, and the ghost of Woody Guthrie as personified through his daughter.
Fans of Wilco are most likely to be disappointed with `Man in the Sand'. As already mentioned, it neglects even to mention how they came into the project, and Bragg gets much more screen time, even though the musical collaboration between them seems to have been fairly evenly split. Still, what we do see of them here shines, both in their studio work and their witty banter with Bragg in discussing the project. Bragg is covered more extensively, and he has an awkward charm that works well in the film, as the personal imperfections that it exposes give a great air of honesty and authenticy.
My primary interest in `Man in the Sand' was neither Billy Bragg nor Wilco, but rather Woody Guthrie and his music. Woody's ghost is the real star here. Throughout the film, Nora Guthrie tells the tales of Woody's life, both in conversations with Bragg, and directly to the microphone, as she explores the legacy of her famous father whom she knows more through his work and legend than she ever did from life. There is nothing new in these stories for most of Woody's fans, but the mix of pride, tenderness, and sorrow in Nora's evocative performance is so raw, honest, and touching as not to be missed. And the power of Woody's writing, to reach down through generations and inspire artists like Bragg and Wilco to create such powerful music in collaboration with his ghost is stunning, and a true tribute to the man.
`Man in the Sand' is an imperfect documentary, but still more than worth your time. Ultimately, it is both Nora Guthrie's evocation of her legendary father's ghost and the peek at the process of two strong willed collaborators with that ghost creating dynamic songs that speak across generations that make `Man in the Sand' worth a look. If that process interests you, then I recommend that you check it out.