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Written, directed, and starring Tim Robbins, this mockumentary about an upstart celebrity candidate for the United States Senate is a hilariously fearsome prediction of American politics in the 25 years that followed. Conservative folksinger Bob Roberts manipulates media coverage of him while singing about the proliferation of welfare abusers, drug users, and soft-hearted liberals and resisting rumors of corruption and hypocrisy. Bob Roberts captures the false populism and soundbite superficiality of contemporary politics with unnerving prescience.
Tim Robbins assembles an all-star cast with Alan Rickman as Roberts’ shady campaign financier, Giancarlo Esposito as a crusading journalist, Gore Vidal as Robert’s political opponent, and an array of supporting appearances by Jack Black, Susan Sarandon, Ray Wise, James Spader, John Cusack, Helen Hunt, David Strathairn, Fred Ward, Bob Balaban, Peter Gallagher, Lynne Thigpen, Pamela Reed, and Brian Murray.
- Audio Commentary With Director And Star Tim Robbins
- Audio Commentary With Tim Robbins And Gore Vidal
- Audio Commentary With Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch
- Back On The Campaign Trail – New Interview With Tim Robbins
- Buggin’ Out – New Interview With Giancarlo Esposito
- Getting Started – New Interview with Jack Black
- Original Bob Roberts Short Film Made For Saturday Night Live
- Deleted Scenes
- Photo Gallery
It’s now time to turn our attention back to the Presidential election and a different celebrity candidate than Jón Gnarr, one that brags about his unethical and illegal business dealings, happily appears at beauty pageants, has no political experience, viciously attacks his opponents, engages in a kind of false populism, and cravenly exploits media coverage of himself. Naturally, we’re talking about Bob Roberts. (Did that description suggest to you someone different, a certain contemporary candidate currently campaigning for public office in the U.S. of A.? If so, I don’t know what you’re talking about.)
Based on a short film made for Saturday Night Live and following alongside his success with Robert Altman‘s The Player (1992), Tim Robbins wrote, directed, and starred in Bob Roberts (1992), a mockumentary following the campaign of a right-wing folk singer looking to oust a long-sitting Democrat from his Senate seat. The film wears its many influences on its sleeve, particularly that from Altman to whom the film is partly dedicated. Robbins’ film is a messy collection of over-lapping dialogue and rapid-fire star cameos in the best sense of Altman. Bob Roberts also brings to mind Altman’s own political mockumentary Tanner ’88 (1988) by its savvy treatment of political performance and the media’s role thereto. Oddly enough, discussions of Robbins’ directorial debut (including Robbins’ own DVD commentaries) seem to universally focus on the groundswell of interest in Robbins due to The Player‘s success at Cannes and leave out entirely any influence by Altman’s satirical miniseries from four years earlier.
Bob Roberts might qualify as a kind of neo-conservative rock-doc as the film functions as much like a touring documentary to a musical act as it does a behind the scenes view of a political campaign. At its most absurd, the film recalls This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984) and it specifically cites the classic rock-moc in an extended sequence of Roberts and his team getting lost in the backstage of a theatre while being hounded by journalist “Bugs” Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito). This reference is of particular importance to the film, as it affirms its comedic identity in the face of its more biting political satire that dominates throughout.
The film’s more specific and persistent musical allusion relates to Bob Dylan. Roberts appropriates Bob Dylan’s rebel mystique in service of an ethos of free market individualism and mercenary capitalism, something most explicitly constructed through a series of right wing send-ups of classic Dylan albums into The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts and The Times Are Changin’ Back. A depicted motorcycle crash and video for Roberts’ “Wall Street Rap” in the style of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as it appears in D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967) further elaborate on insider/outsider persona cultivated by the Republican candidate. The film boasts a collection of brilliantly frightening anti-folk ballads that celebrate inherited wealth, defend school prayer, and mock liberal compassion, tunes written by Tim’s brother David and so frighteningly effective that they were withheld from release as a soundtrack due to the filmmaker’s fear that they would be appropriated by conservative interests.
Bob Roberts‘ central concern relates to the flattening effect of the media’s presentation of the political process. That shallowness is exhibited in the mockumentary’s basic form constructed from various sound bites, brief talking head interviews, and caught-in-the-moment exchanges. Robbins explicitly foregrounds the mediated image throughout Bob Roberts. Views of Roberts on TV screens and camera monitors are ubiquitous to the film and Robbins is not shy about showing how this process of representation distorts reality, portraying televised images in close-up to reveal their scan lines or shooting the warped image of characters as reflected on powered down CRT screens. After Roberts is shot in stomach while leaving a late night sketch comedy show and the question of Raplin’s role as would-be assassin circulates, Roberts’ inner circle freeze frames a video of the incident and knowingly observe the dark, smeared image of Raplin’s hand withdrawing from his coat as if the image provided some actual insight. It, of course, does not.
Jonathan Rosenbaum notes that the media-style “mental abbreviations” of sound bites and photo-ops are embodied in the video for “Wall Street Rap” where jump cuts rearrange Roberts’ yuppie dancing girls. The technique is slickly appealing but runs in opposition to the single-take authenticity of Dylan’s original work. Roberts is “an antiestablishment envelope packaging conformist goods,” but the ironic contrast of the candidate’s businessman folk singer celebrity reveals the seams to his false persona. Other examples are alluded to in the doubled appearances of Roberts in his “I Want to Live” video and the revealing footage of Roberts caught at the film’s conclusion. It is in these moments that the ellipses of this supposed documentary and its slippages in revealing Roberts are shown. Yet, for as critical as Robbins is of the Republican campaign and its inherent falsity, his treatment of Democrats is only modestly better. Gore Vidal’s Brickley Paiste, while providing insightful commentary on the state of democracy and the military industrial complex, is entirely ineffectual in his ability to meet his opponent’s media-savvy challenge. In Bob Roberts, the higher ground of moral authority goes hand-in-hand with a bankruptcy of compelling ideas to engage modern voters and contest the media-packaging of opposing candidates. In its way, Bob Roberts calls for a charismatic, saxophone-playing Democrat to challenge for the infotainment news cycle.
Bob Roberts is a biting satire full of great songs with sickening sentiments. Unfortunately, the film suffered in its making and release as Robbins struggled with a lack of studio support, and those difficulties seem to have extended to the film’s home media releases. Despite having a robust DVD, Bob Roberts is little known and lacks a high-def edition despite being ever more relevant to the American political landscape. Shout Select has yet to dip its figurative toe into 1990s cinema, but we hope this move is inevitable. Bob Roberts could be a great title for Shout Select, being smart, unique, full of great stars, and already possessing a collection of excellent special features to exploit. Now, more than ever, Tim Robbins’ film seems due to be rediscovered.
Credits: We’ve ported over all the special features from the existing Bob Roberts DVD, plus we’ve added three new interviews and the SNL short that inspired the film. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Beyond Bush-Bashing [BOB ROBERTS]” was one of the best discussions found of the film and assisted in the preparation of this post.