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SLIFF: 'Song Sung Blue'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 12, 2008 - Documentary filmmaker Greg Kohs first saw the Milwaukee-based act "Lightning & Thunder" performing at a biker convention he was filming for Harley-Davidson, and though they never made it onscreen in that project, he was sufficiently impressed to choose them for his next subject. And who wouldn't be? Mark Sardina ("Lightning") and his wife Claire ("Thunder" - and yes, they really do call themselves by those names even at home) were long-time sensations on the state-fair-and-convention circuit.

Thunder sings harmony and belts out a few Patsy Cline tunes, but the core of the act is Lightning's bouffant-and-fringe-perfect impersonation of Neil Diamond, true to every sweaty Hot-August-Night detail. (Having lived in Wisconsin for a very brief time in the mid-70s, I can tell you that they just love this stuff up there; I was in a small town where the bowling alleys had competing Elvis impersonators - For one of them, half of his show was Elvis, the other half Engelbert Humperdinck - and this was while Elvis was still alive!)

Whatever Kohs saw in the act - who reached something of a career highlight by appearing on stage with Pearl Jam singing "Forever in Blue Jeans" - his film went in an unexpected direction when Thunder was injured in a freak accident and lost a leg. While she struggles through rehabilitation and her husband watches his admittedly tenuous dream of stardom fade away, Kohs captures not just a fringe show-business act but an all-too-typical middle-class family going into decline, hit by loss of income, depression and an increasing sense of their own dysfunction.

On one level, "Song Sung Blue" is an almost too-close-for-comfort look at one of the lower tiers of show business. It would be easy to laugh at the Sardinas and their tacky embrace of an already kitschy entertainer like Diamond. But Kohs doesn't ridicule them, doesn't look for ways to embarrass them and, ultimately, doesn't care whether he's dealing with people who make a living by wearing satin jumpsuits instead of working an assembly line or cruising a boardroom. Kohs gets an intimate glimpse of how a relatively average middle-class family - career choices aside - can become overwhelmed by a simple act of fate. He may admire the showmanship of the Sardinas, but it's the banality - and the familiarity - of their offstage lives that gives the film resonance.