If you were over the age of about 15 during the ’90s (or are just a fan of ’90s music), then Morphine needs no introduction. If you’ve never heard of the band, start with 1993’s Cure for Pain and prepare to have your horizons expanded and your mind blown.
Morphine broke all kinds of ground with a sound that was completely unlike any other band. Three guys. Playing a two-string bass, a baritone saxophone, and drums. Then layer Mark Sandman’s hauntingly deep voice over top. Nary a guitar to be found. They were branded “low rock” for a reason.
Morphine included Sandman on bass and vocals, Dana Colley on sax, and Billy Conway (and occasionally Jerome Deupree) on drums. During the ’90s, they were a legitimate phenomenon. And I was in love with them.
I caught them live only once–during 1995’s HORDE tour. They played the second stage (with Wilco!), and I happily skipped main stage headliners The Black Crowes to catch their whole set. It was amazing.
Morphine: Journey of Dreams, now streaming practically everywhere (and available on good ol’ fashioned DVD), is the 2016 documentary that presents a fairly comprehensive view of the band. The film traces the roots of the band in Boston dive bars and then follows their meteoric rise during the mid-’90s as they very quickly became a global sensation and a fixture of summer festivals around the world.
Even though the doc tells the story of the band and includes extensive interviews with members Colley, Conway, and Deupree (along with others who were close to the group), it really focuses on the legendary Mark Sandman, who was clearly the obsessive genius behind the band’s success.
Sandman’s sudden and far-too-early death during a concert in 1999 casts a shadow over the entire film. Even when discussing the height of their success, the interviewees are clearly recalling those memories from a place of sorrow. Nevertheless, Journey of Dreams does a remarkable job at humanizing Sandman through the people who knew him best. The film also has a gritty and “unrefined” feel that is perfectly in tune with Morphine’s sound and general attitude.
One of the most revealing aspects of the film is, aside from the candid interviews throughout, Dana Colley reading from the journals he kept during their tours. He’s a fantastic writer, and his insights were immediate, raw, emotional, and… well, incredibly insightful. They show a band that was clearly making it up as they went along and having the time of their lives.
The DVD includes 40 minutes of extra interviews that didn’t make it into the final film. They pull back the curtain a little bit more and reveal great memories from all three surviving band members, in addition to Henry Rollins, Joe Strummer (The Clash), and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos). Also included is the Q&A session following the film’s premiere and a collection of Mark Sandman’s personal photographs.
Journey of Dreams is a beautiful film, and if you’re a fan of Morphine at all, you need to add this one to your watchlist. You won’t regret it.
Immediately after watching the film, I hit play on their last album (2000’s The Night, which was released after Sandman’s untimely passing), and the songs were cast in a whole new light. It felt even more melancholy–if such a thing were possible.