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Sandman's Dreams

This Morphine doc plays on heartstrings.

I was only distantly aware of the passing of Morphine frontman Mark Sandman. Like many, I made the easy leap, chalking it up to an overdose. But the truth is that his infatuation with dreams, Morpheus, the underworld, literature and art were the muses behind the band name. And a weakened heart, not hard drugs, condemned Sandman to collapse onstage in front of a festival crowd in 1999 in Italy. It was an epic way to die for a man who lived an uncompromising life. If this seems like a spoiler, it's history at this point. In Morphine: Journey of Dreams, filmmaker Mark Shuman provides plenty of joy and sentiment before that inevitable conclusion.

The best music documentaries simultaneously humanize and immortalize their subjects. Whether it's Rush, Alice Cooper, Ray Charles or Amy Winehouse, the viewer should walk away with a deeper understanding, appreciation and emotional involvement with the artist. Shuman's doc succeeds on all levels.

The band Morphine was a case study in the Alternative Nation phenomenon. From the same city and scene that spawned contemporaries such as the Pixies, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Lemonheads, Morphine broke all the rules and made its own. As the act grew from hometown hero to critical darling to major-label oddity, Sandman's idiosyncrasies defined the trio's aesthetic. He played his two-string bass with a slide and invited saxophonist Dana Colley to fill in the rest. It was a sparse sound, often described as noir, and it captured the imagination of a sizable international audience.

Morphine lasted a decade, from 1989 to 1999, and Journey of Dreams does a remarkable job of charting the band's arc during that time. The documentary mined a wealth of archival material, with revealing interviews from all the key players. Talking heads include early mentor Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Henry Rollins and Joe Strummer. And the crew, the band, their manager and Sandman's girlfriend Sabine provide comprehensive insight into the story of a unique group.

Part way through Journey of Dreams, the film tells a story about Sandman's younger days as a wandering, Kerouac-like figure. While driving a cab, he was attacked by an assailant who dragged a knife across Sandman's chest, piercing his heart. Despite living with the mortal weakness from his wound, or perhaps because of it, he drove himself to live a full lifetime in his short 46 years. NATHAN CARSON.

Critic's Grade: A

See it: Morphine: Journey of Dreams plays at the Hollywood Theatre on Wednesday, Dec. 9. 7:30 pm. $8.