Karen Dalton was never a household name and she never will be. But for a certain subset of music fans, the Oklahoma-born folk chanteuse is a legend. Lovingly directed by Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz, this documentary is a reverent tribute to a person who cast a spell on most people—men, particularly—whose path she crossed. A parade of aging hippies, including a couple ex-husbands, sing Dalton’s praises. Later luminaries like Nick Cave count her as a touchstone as well. But was she really worth the hype?
The thing about profiles of troubled artists who died young, had mental and substance issues, and never really “made it,” is that those of us new to their art are at the mercy of ardent acolytes. Who am I to argue with Bob Dylan, who’s quoted from his autobiography, calling Dalton his favorite singer? The singer/songwriter Angel Olsen reads Dalton’s diary throughout, lending the narrative a rare intimacy. It makes the viewer feel like they’re in the room with Dalton as she shoots speed, fights with countless lovers, and agonizes over a music career that’s not going as she’d dreamed or as so many around her expected it to.
Karen Dalton: In My Own Time
Dir. Richard Peete and Robert Yapkowitz, 85 min. Sat 10/30 and Sun 10/31 11:45 AM, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, $9.
The film has an unexpectedly meaningful coda, as a fire consumed much of the singer’s archives soon after the shoot was done, leaving it as the sole photographic and aural record of most of that material. Dalton died of AIDS in the 80s, but her music has had several revivals since. No doubt this love letter of a documentary will spur renewed interest. Whether she was an underappreciated genius or another in a long line of tormented minor lights of a significant era is up to the listener/viewer to say.