Even by alternative-rock standards, the trio of Mark Sandman, Dana Colley, and Billy Conway — collectively known as Morphine — were weirdos. They didn’t even have a guitarist. Drawing on jazz, the blues, and early rock ’n’ roll, they called their sound “low rock,” a reference to the deep, murky tone Sandman coaxed from a two-string bass on which he bent notes with a slide. Colley filled in the space with rumbling saxophone, and Conway brought economy and grace to his primal drumming.
From the late 1980s till its abrupt demise a decade later, Morphine was radically out of step with its local peers. Yet the band not only attracted a large, fervent following in Boston, but also sold hundreds of thousands of records, got signed to a major label, and made its way on to college radio and MTV. After Sandman died of a heart attack while onstage at a festival in Italy in 1999, a tribute concert in Cambridge attracted thousands of friends, peers, and fans.
Now, a new documentary asserts that the unconventional trio is ripe for reappraisal. Five years in the making, director Mark Shuman’s “Morphine: Journey of Dreams” will have its premiere on the group’s home turf this weekend, screening at the Brattle Theatre on Saturday as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston.
“I don’t think the band has ever had justice done to them, and I don’t think they’ve been recognized enough for what they accomplished,” says Shuman. “I wanted this film to appeal to younger generations because I don’t think Morphine’s legacy is over. People will still be listening to Morphine 50 years from now, and talking about them more in 20.”
Culled from archival photos and more than a hundred hours of video footage, including Sandman’s commentary, the film makes it clear that Morphine was a band’s band. The three-piece didn’t have mainstream hits, per se, but it crafted classic songs (“Buena,” “Early to Bed”) that made believers out of everyone from Henry Rollins to Joe Strummer, the late ringleader of the Clash, who relays in the film an amusing story of how he first met the band.
“It was like peeling back the most beautiful onion you’ve ever had,” Shuman says. “I had no idea how big they were internationally. The other thing that struck me about their story is how much of a family they were. There was some dysfunction, like any family has. But they were close, and Mark really had an influence on their lives.”
It’s not the first film to examine Sandman’s ascent. In 2011, “Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story” zoomed in on his personal life and particularly his relationship with his family, but it wasn’t comprehensive about Morphine the way “Journey of Dreams” is.
“I feel really fortunate that it was made, to have some kind of place holder in the annals of history,” Colley says from his home in Somerville. “It’s hard to put it into perspective in terms of what the band was and how it impacted Boston. But I’m very happy that my kids and their kids will have something to look back on and say, ‘Oh, that’s what Dad did.’ ”
By the very nature of Morphine’s rise, “Journey of Dreams” is a love letter to the local music scene, frequently capturing moments at venues such as the Middle East and Shuman’s interviews with the band’s inner circle, many of whom still live around here. More than 15 years since Sandman’s passing, their faces crumple with tearful emotion as they remember his loss. It’s still fresh.
Until Shuman secures distribution for the film, it’s been making the rounds on the festival circuit, turning up at screenings in Chicago, Kansas City, and next week in Portugal. Shuman first met, and instantly fell in love with, Morphine in the early ’90s when the band played at the Electric Lounge, the defunct music club he co-owned in Austin, Texas, where he lives. He ran into Colley at South by Southwest several years ago and pitched the idea of a documentary. The story was too poignant to ignore.
“It’s almost like a classic three-act play. It has all the elements: the beginnings, the success, and then the unfortunate tragedy at the end,” Shuman says. “The real inspiration for the doc was hanging out with the guys when they’d come through town and watching Dana write in his journals. He explained that he wrote these daily journals about what was happening on the road. That had always been in the back of my mind.”
From the beginning, Colley documented the band’s adventures with a journal and a Polaroid camera that his wife had given him. Shuman had Colley recite some of the entries on camera, a device that revealed Colley’s astonishment at just how fast everything was happening. In one passage, he recalls spotting PJ Harvey, Michael Stipe, and Boston’s own Belly watching one of Morphine’s festival sets from the wings.
“For me, this is something I’ve never really walked away from,” says Colley, who gave Shuman complete access to Morphine’s archives. “It’s always been a part of my life, but I think Mark’s commitment to making this film is pretty staggering. He said from the beginning, ‘It’s going to take a while, but I want to do it right.’ ”
The band’s legacy also lives on through Vapors of Morphine, a trio that includes Colley, Jerome Deupree, Morphine’s original drummer before Conway replaced him, and Jeremy Lyons on two-string bass. They’ve championed the film with appearances at screenings and Q&A sessions afterward, in addition to their regular Saturday night residency at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge. Last weekend they held court in front of a full house, heads bobbing to Morphine songs including “Candy” and “Pulled Over the Car.”
“It’s a good time for this film,” says Deb Klein, Morphine’s first and only manager, who’s also interviewed in the movie. “All my music-industry compatriots are huge fans of Morphine. There’s still a lot of respect for them, and I think so many of their songs stand up to the test of time. They still have that cool, evocative, moody, sexy thing that I don’t know if anybody else has been able to capture. Maybe the National [the indie-rock band], but I still haven’t heard anything like it.”
And how would Sandman have received the film?
“Well, Mark was very private and very controlling in regards to how things were seen and heard. Although I could say to you that I’m happy with this film, I can almost guarantee that there would be something about it that Mark wouldn’t like,” Colley says, laughing. “Something you would never even consider. He was a perfectionist with his own set of standards that a lot of us would roll our eyes about.”
“But there are a lot of people out there that this film means a lot to,” Colley adds. “I think Mark was someone who really reached people on a personal level. When you came to a Morphine show, you felt like you knew the guy, that he was your friend. I think for anybody who wasn’t able to experience that, this will stand as a gift to them.”
Watch the “Morphine: Journey of Dreams” trailer here:
Watch Vapors of Morphine live: