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Originally published October 21, 2010 at 3:01 PM | Page modified October 21, 2010 at 3:15 PM

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Movie review

'I Am Secretly an Important Man': Jesse Bernstein doc depressing but leavened by song

The late Jesse Bernstein, Seattle's own Charles Bukowski, is the subject of a new documentary "I Am Secretly an Important Man," directed by Peter Sillen. The film includes interviews with Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, former art-gallery owner and punk-rock promoter Larry Reid and actor Susy Schneider.

Seattle Times jazz critic

Movie review 3 stars

'I Am Secretly an Important Man,' a documentary directed by Peter Sillen. 84 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Northwest Film Forum.

Jesse Bernstein wasn't much of a poet, but his very public lifestyle as a tortured poète maudit — the Emerald City's own Charles Bukowski — earned him a fond niche on Seattle's art and grunge-rock scenes.

He was a surprisingly gentle and gracious man, given the snarling tone of his poems and the grating sound of his voice. For all the self-loathing and beatnik angst, there was something oddly sweet about him.

When Bernstein slit his own throat with a buck knife in 1991, it was sad but not surprising. He made no secret of his suffering, but why was life so unbearable for him?

"I Am Secretly an Important Man," a crisp new documentary directed by Peter Sillen, goes a long way toward answering that question.

Interviews with family and friends in Los Angeles, where Bernstein grew up, reveal he was born with a brain defect that triggered mental illness, and also had a childhood bout with polio. Sadly, Bernstein wound up as a mental patient in Camarillo State Hospital at 15. He escaped, living for a while under a bridge along California Highway 1. He then hitchhiked to New York and even rode on Ken Kesey's psychedelic-era "Magic Bus." Alcohol and drug abuse were perennial issues.

Bernstein came to Seattle in the late '60s, then settled here in the '70s, moving from music — he played guitar and sang — to the written word.

His appearance on Sub Pop's "Compilation 200," reading the declamatory "Come Out Tonight," catapulted him from poetry scenester to rock anti-hero. Bernstein's life is illuminated by interviews with, among others, jazz bassist Pete Leinonen (who collaborated with him), former art-gallery owner and punk-rock promoter Larry Reid, actor Susy Schneider (who does a very funny impersonation of Bernstein), Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt and Bernstein's widow, the poet Alison Slow Loris.

It's a depressing story, leavened, however, by the soundtrack, which features Bernstein singing and playing guitar. Though his style was "down" in a Leonard Cohen way, Bernstein's tender, probing songs come as a pleasant surprise.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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