What is most resonant about Greg Kohs’ Sung Song Blue is the raw desperation to succeed that characterizes Neil Diamond impersonator “Lightning” Mike Sardina. Sardina’s passion, both on and off the stage, was unmistakable and he experienced pure unadulterated joy when he was crooning for a crowd whether it was 3 or 30,000 people. I was wholly unprepared to experience the life of Sardina and his wife Claire, who made up the Milwaukee-based duo Lightning & Thunder. When Claire was struck by a car and lost part of her leg, he struggled to get their career back on track after having experienced their equivalent of 15 minutes of fame-performing “Forever in Blue Jeans” with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. The accident took a greater toll on the couple than they could ever have imagined as the realities of trying to perform with a disability mingled with turmoil in their family life. Eventually, invitations to perform all but ended, plunging them into financial despair, and Claire began to doubt their future as performers even though Mike, relentless as always, believed their big break was right around the corner.
Raw and realistic throughout, Kohs’ documentary reveals the family fighting and the disappointment and utter exasperation felt by those closest to Lightning & Thunder in scenes that are sometimes difficult to watch, but overall the film is both charming and passionate, as it is balanced with many happier moments too — footage of them smooching on stage as well as scenes from their wedding at the Wisconsin State Fair. It’s touching to see just how in love with each other they were.
When you read the synopsis for Song Sung Blue, it’s easy to assume the film is a kitschy and somewhat light-hearted look at a couple of celebrity impersonators overcoming the odds after a tragedy — somewhat like a VH1 Behind the Music episode — but this first independent feature-length documentary from director/producer Kohs (better known as a sports filmmaker) is surprising in its depth and poignancy.
On a personal note: I could have lived without the gratuitous shots of Mike in his tightie whities, though.
Song Sung Blue is part of SIFF’s Face the Music series which documents the hopes and struggles of those who create and live music. It screens twice next weekend.