You can't explain Buffalo without explaining Lance Diamond.
And you can't understand Diamond without understanding the city he loved.
The legendary blue-collar performer and his hardscrabble hometown, two enigmatic entities totally inseparable from one another, share the spotlight in Kevin Polowy and Brandon Rae's vital and heartfelt documentary "A Diamond in the Buff: The Lance Diamond Story."
The film is shot through with joy, weaving heartfelt stories from those closest to Diamond with well-chosen pieces of context about his life and the cultural atmosphere in which he worked. It captures the ineffable spirit of Diamond, who died in 2015, by replicating on video some of the same sense of bliss, fascination and charisma that drew so many thousands to his live performances over his long career.
By the time of his death, after more than 30 years of performing at local festivals and at the Elmwood Lounge (now Milkie's), Diamond's reputation had grown to the point where many of us took him for granted. The sequined suits, the gregarious persona, the ladies' man aphorisms and the joyful swagger -- all of it came to seem as much a part of life here as Blue Light on tap or bubbles floating over Allentown.
That was true until it was not, and for many, the astounding size of Diamond's influence - the innumerable ways in which he was loved - only became clear after he disappeared from the scene.
It is likely to become much clearer in this film, which is as much a love letter to Buffalo as to its ostensible subject. The project began as a profile of Diamond while he was still alive. And it is a testament to the skill of the filmmakers that they built such a compelling portrait of the man upon a single interview with him, a smattering of grainy VHS footage mixed with stock photography of Buffalo and other performers.
Beyond the expert editing, what gives this film its soul is the variety and comfort of its interview subjects, which include former Elmwood Lounge owner John Gikas, Diamond's sisters Pauline "Pepper" Counts and Joan Emory, Robby Takac of the Goo Goo Dolls and a host of longtime fans, admirers and associates from every imaginable walk of Buffalo life.
Nailing down Diamond's appeal is difficult if not impossible, even for his biggest fans.
"Everybody's response was the same," said Takac of Diamond's ineffable appeal, "first a little confused and then wow, this really kicks [butt]."
Diamond, who was the first to admit he wasn't the greatest singer or dancer in the world, probably explained it best.
"There's an energy with connecting with your audience that's just amazing," he tells the filmmakers. "If I can say it, it's better than sex because it's so good. It's like 20 climaxes at a time."
The film does not shy away from more difficult subjects like Diamond's health struggles or his seeming inability to protect his own financial interests or pursue what might have been a broader career beyond Buffalo. The film's final act contains a tear-wrenching segment about dreams deferred and the steep physical and emotional price of Diamond's dedication to his career.
But mostly, "A Diamond in the Buff" is about joy: The joy Diamond got from the crowd and the joy he gave them back tenfold; the joy of being a big fish in a small pond; the joy of spending a life doing something you love. And now, for those who never experienced it, the joy of watching a heartfelt film about a Buffalo phenomenon the likes of which we will never see again.
"A Diamond in the Buff: The Lance Diamond Story"
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of four)
Kevin Polowy and Brandon Rae's in-depth look at the life and legend of Buffalo performer Lance Diamond. 88 minutes. Unrated. Opens Friday in the North Park Theatre.