Dear Jack

Dear Jack (2009)
Dir: Joshua Morrisroe & Corey Moss

Nearly a decade ago, my friend got me into ‘One Tree Hill’, and on one particularly excellent episode in 2006 there was a benefit concert featuring this guy called Andrew McMahon and his band Jack’s Mannequin. They played one song, ‘The Mixed Tape’ and that was it, I figured if the song was that excellent the album ‘Everything in Transit’ was worth a try so I ordered it from Amazon and when it came I played it through from start to end. I have repeated that process approximately once a week since, and finally 9 years later I got to see Andrew McMahon performing live last year.

I’m not a regular concert goer, partly as most of the acts I want to see don’t perform anywhere near me but every now and again I make the effort to travel for someone special, Andrew was the last performer on my current list of ‘must sees’ that I’ve been working to make happen. Or rather, he made happen. You see, I tried to get tickets that would be suitable for me in my wheelchair, but due to some bad organisation on the part of the ticketing company and others, I just couldn’t seem to get through to the right people and they didn’t get back to me. Then Andrew tweeted a link to the (already unhelpful) site to buy the tickets I had been trying to get, to which I replied that I had been trying, and they weren’t getting back to me. Ten minutes later I got a reply from Andrew himself:

‘Hey Tim, I’m reaching out on your behalf. Someone in my camp will hit you back when we hear from the venue’.

Sure enough, the next day I had tweets, then emails, assuring me that if I bought tickets there would be a space suitable for me in my wheelchair and that my carer could come along with complimentary entrance. My respect for Andrew went up another level.

So in February after 9 years of loving his music I saw Andrew McMahon doing what he does best, rocking out on a piano! To help get me even more in the mood beforehand, I decided to re-watch the two DVDs he’s done. They are very different from each other, and document both the start and end of his ‘side project’ under the name ‘Jack’s Mannequin’. This one is the most personal, and is now available on Netflix so it seems a good time to review it so that people are aware of its existence and can maybe take the opportunity to watch it.

Narrated by close friend and collaborator Tommy Lee, ‘Dear Jack’ is a very personal account largely pieced together from home footage taken by Andrew and his family when he was diagnosed with Leukaemia. He realised that documenting his experiences and treatment would be a productive activity and may be of benefit to others in a similar situation.

I’ve often wondered why more people don’t know about Andrew and his music and why his superb ‘Everything in Transit’ album wasn’t a bigger hit. This film explains why, as his illness coincided with the release and he was unable to put in all the promotional efforts that might have otherwise been done. Interestingly many of the album lyrics refer to being ill, the first line of the whole album is “She thinks I’m much too thin, she asks me if I’m sick”. It’s fascinating to see how this and other lines hint at that he had a feeling he wasn’t well long before the diagnosis.

The film documents so much, from March 2005 pre-release gigs to build excitement for the album, through diagnosis and the rapid developments, just a few months later in June 2005 shaving his hair off, an unexpected transition from rising rock star to patient. We follow all this, learning much about the condition, treatment, and what is involved from a real sufferer’s point of view. As well as Andrew’s own footage, there are bits in which his family, girlfriend, even his doctor speaks, both about their observations of how he appeared to them, but also how it made them feel. Hearing their perspectives and how they felt to see this happening and doing what they could to help all adds so much to rounding out the full account of the situation. There are interesting little insights that I don’t think I had any prior knowledge of, from hearing that pneumonia is actually the cause of death for over 40% of people in his situation, to seeing how he uses a lint roller to collect loose hair as it falls out, and even the more serious matters such as deciding if he wants to freeze some sperm so he could have a family later in life and saying that he’s not even sure if he wants a family.

At times we see handwritten letters and notes as Andrew’s feelings are very honestly documented. At one point he goes through quite a negative period and hits his lowest point. Even at this time he is still songwriting and writes a beautiful song, ‘There there Katie’ (which has incidentally just come on my headphones) for his sister. Symptoms get to bad during this stage of his treatment that he couldn’t film for a while, but as an audience we’re not left at a loss to follow events as this in itself speaks volumes about the situation.

Andrew’s record label stuck by him and respected his wishes through the course of his treatment and recovery. I like how much this offers a refreshing contrast to the fictional record executives you often see in films who are often portrayed as soulless money grabbers. Andrew’s team supported him, did what they could for the album and then when he was more able they helped arrange a ‘100 days’ milestone show which brings us back to the excellent music. One of the ‘silver linings’ in a way is how great it is to hear about the meaning behind these songs I know and love as Andrew touches on how the album came to be. That was also the nicest part of seeing Andrew McMahon live, he explained the background to some of the songs and the lyrics suddenly took on added meaning.

Strangely and almost unexpectedly a true love story emerges from the midst of everything else. Andrew becomes very reflective on his failed relationship, he ponders over the “Yoga people say I’ve got a broken heart”. I don’t want to spoil things, but there’s a happy ending and it adds such an uplifting aspect to the whole story.

I heartily recommend that everyone should give ‘Everything in Transit’ (now re-released for the 10th Anniversary) a listen, plus for the events covered in this film he wrote songs that appear on the ‘Dear Jack EP’ which is only a handful of songs but every one of them is brilliant and beautiful and so intensely filled with meaning and poignancy after seeing this and understanding what they’re about. With a decade of hindsight some of the things said in this film, especially about wanting a family, are able to be seen in a more positive light as Andrew is now the extremely proud father of a little girl Cecilia, who has influenced his more recent music. He also set up the Dear Jack Foundation which does a lot of work for adolescent leukaemia patients.

As said at the outset I’m reviewing this now as it’s currently available on Netflix and I think it’s really worth a look, not just for fans of Andrew and his music, but for anyone. It offers a rarely seen insight on being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, not the fictionalised versions we are used to seeing in films such as ’50/50′, ‘The Fault in our Stars’ or ‘A Walk to Remember’ which in their own way have a place and something to say, but this is a real-life account and thankfully one that has a happy ending and offers hope and optimism.
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