Balancing one’s creativity with one’s finances is an arduous endeavor. Such is the case for the main subject of the new documentary Roll Out Cowboy, which is compassionately directed by Columbia College alum Elizabeth Lawrence. In Lawrence’s engaging film we follow a somewhat outrageous character named Chris Sand whose stage name is Sandman: The Rappin Cowboy. As a musical performer Sand’s defining attribute is that he has no definite musical identity. He is a conglomeration of several highly distinctive styles. Hailing from Dunn Center, ND (whose overall population we are told is under 120 people and shrinking fast) Chris Sand has been carving out a meager existence for himself by living in a ramshackle old house that he procured for less than $1000 dollars. Sandman’s music, which is a bizarre mixture of folk, hip-hop and country styles, appears to be his salvation and foundation; it also serves as the perfect fodder for cinematic documentation.
However, Lawrence’s perspective towards her subject matter, which could have easily been exploitative, is instead respectful and almost reverential towards Mr. Sand, who we follow during one of his musical tours. These sections of the film are a joy to watch, with the viewer slowly becoming acclimated to the eclectic albeit talented Sandman. Brevity seems to be what Lawrence and her editor were shooting for during the construction of the tour footage. Certain tour stops on the road consist of little over a minute of screen time. Strangely, despite this viciously brisk pace, the viewer is still capable of coming to terms with Sand’s dichotomized personality. He is a man torn between the creative impulse and the need for fiscal stability. He also projects a fondness for nature and solitude that is mixed with a dependence on communal institutions.
Perhaps appropriately then, Sand’s musical and personal identity appears reflective of the splintered psyche of America. Sandman’s cross-country tour coincides with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. What the film seems to suggest is that the complexity of the Sandman character, and the multi-faceted nature of his musical style, allows his appeal to be universal. It speak to all demographics, from small-town natives in North Dakota, to urban-fringe hipsters residing in Chicago or Portland. Thus, because of the politically charged nature of his music, Sandman becomes a symbol of America’s vast political spectrum.
The central question the film wrestles with is if it is possible for a creative type to capture “The American Dream” at the end of the Bush era, or if this is (or always has been) a fallacy in a society that is almost entirely driven by money. Sandman’s story doesn’t present any sort of clear-cut answer. Instead, the film simply evokes the idea that these two distinct and powerful desires (to nurture one’s artistic spirit and to obtain a comfortable financial situation) will exist in almost eternal opposition to one another.
By focusing upon an entertaining artistic presence and profiling a truly remarkable time in American history, Lawrence’s film emerges as functional on a multitude of levels. It is a poignant character study but also a cultural statement of where we were in 2008. In one sequence Sandman breaks from his tour and gains the opportunity to obtain money through more conventional and commercial means. His look of sheer euphoria at being able to settle some of his debts (and gain a moment of stability) seems to equal the elation that he has obtained from his music-making. This is the crucial point that Lawrence’s film desires to articulate, that at the end of the Bush presidency it is almost impossible for many individuals to not feel this level of internal conflict. The desire to make art is one thing, the ability to make it while supporting yourself is sadly quite another.