TORONTO -- Troubadour Steve Earle says he'll never let a film crew follow him around again. "I hated it," he said about the making of Just an American Boy, a film portrait of Earle, which had its premiere Saturday at the North by Northeast music festival. "I'm done. I don't think you'll see any documentary footage of me any time soon."
The film, directed by Amos Poe, is a musical and cultural representation of Earle following Sept. 11.
An opinionated artist and activist, Earle was very much opposed to the U.S.-led war on Iraq. That opinion, coupled with the release of his single John Walker's Blues, made him the target of right-wingers who attacked his patriotism.
"I didn't plan on making a record (in 2002)," he said prior to the screening of the film. "I thought I'd be delivering a record about now, but then people started flying planes into buildings and I found myself writing a record that I couldn't help but write."
It's not the first time someone's tried to make a documentary of the singer, who made headlines several years ago because of his strong opposition to the death penalty. The other film was aborted after Earle fired the previous director, whose name the singer said he couldn't remember.
"I finally told the guy to take a hike because he abused the space of friends of mine at Farm Aid," said Earle, often considered one of Nashville's thorniest, troubled yet best artists.
One of those friends was Neil Young.
"He (the filmmaker) decided that because I was sitting having lunch with Neil Young that that gave him licence to come right up and stick a camera in Neil's face after Neil had said explicitly that he didn't want to talk to him."
Earle, 47, decided to try letting a film crew follow him again because of the controversy sparked by John Walker, a ballad about American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. With Arabic chants in the background, Earle sings of Lindh as "an American boy raised on MTV" who was driven to a distant culture.
"It was written in one night," said the roots rocker. "They'd just brought John Walker Lindh back to the States. I was travelling with my son, who's exactly his age. That had a lot to do with that song existing.
"When I saw him, I saw a skinny 20-year-old kid like mine . . . and I thought, 'Man, he's got parents and they've gotta be sick.' "
After some online research into Islam, the singer/songwriter was set to write the album.
"It dawned on me that our ignorance to Islam is probably one of the most dangerous things to us right now," he said. "Most westerners don't know that Muslims worship exactly the same God that Christians and Jews do. It's not a similar God -- it's the same God."
Candid monologues by Earle about his music and politics are intermingled with concert footage, some of which was done at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall. The 95-minute film includes 15 songs that span the course of his career, including The Mountain, Guitar Town, Copperhead Road, Jerusalem, The Unrepentant and Christmas in Washington.
While Earle is quick to attack the U.S. administration, he's also critical of Canada's role in current events.
He told the story of how his father urged an 18-year-old Earle to go to Canada during the Vietnam War to avoid being drafted.
"The difference was in those days Canada took a stand and welcomed anyone who avoided the draft," Earle said. "I believe this government would extradite people that came to Canada to evade the draft."
He blames NAFTA for that change in policy.
"Everyone gets out of the United States' way and lets the big dog eat, and everybody assumes that they can't do anything about it. That's not true." Ever conscious of the impact his comments could have on his career, Earle nevertheless says artists shouldn't silence their political convictions.
"I'm sure I have lost fans," said Earle, who not surprisingly is friends with controversial documentary filmmaker Michael Moore -- he of Bowling for Columbine fame. "I don't worry about it.
"I make an embarrassing amount of money for a borderline Marxist."
And there's one segment of the American population he enjoys offending.
"I intend to alienate Republicans. I live for it."