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Benjamin Smoke

A look at the short life of a musical rebel.


Robert "Benjamin" Dickerson, longtime figure on Atlanta's underground music scene, blended punk rock, country and blues as frontman for Smoke and other bands. Filmmakers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen chronicle the last nine years of his life, from Smoke's emotionally charged performances and his work with idol Patti Smith to his 1999 death from AIDS.


Benjamin quietly commands attention in a series of intimate, poignant and remarkably open interviews, discussing his childhood as a country boy in drag, his punk-rock beginnings, life as a self-confessed speed freak and his thoughts on death and dying. Through it all, a quirky, ironic sense of humor shows through ("I just love cops at shows"). In candid shots, he serves as a window into the underground music scene and as an observer of life in the shadow of Cabbagetown's long-shuttered cotton mills, where "little kids ... go to jail really young, whose parents all do inhalants."


The movie opens with a beautifully composed black and white montage set to Benjamin's distinctly Southern rasp. The rest of the 80-minute docupic delivers on the sensory expectations that the opening sets up, interleaving interviews, candid moments and environmental shots to develop an intimate portrait of the subject. However, it is a portrait so alluring that one leaves with only the vaguest sense of the events and chronology behind the film.

Bottom Line

A bold, affirming look at one man's offbeat vision, alternately touching and humorous.


Starring Benjamin, Patti Smith, Tim Campion, Brian Halloran and Coleman Lewis.

Directed and produced by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. Released by Cowboy Booking.