Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Grizzled Leon Russell, veteran rock and roll sage.

(2021) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell, Claudia Lennear, Joe Cocker, Doyle Bramhall, Chris Robinson, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chris Stainton, Matthew Moore, Pamela Pollard, Bobby Jones, Chuck Blackwell, Bobby Torres, Dave Mason, David Fricke, Daniel Moore, Linda Wolf. Directed by Jesse Lauter

In 1970, Joe Cocker was a rising star, his big, blistering bluesy vocals having carved memorable performances at rock festivals around the world, including Woodstock. He had poured everything in him into achieving success and he was flat-out exhausted. There was a U.S. tour looming and he wanted to beg out of it, so he fired his entire band, hoping that would get him out of having to do the tour. The trouble is, the American promoters didn’t want the tour cancelled and put enormous pressure on Cocker to honor his commitments.

Without a band and with the tour dates approaching like a runaway freight train, he enlisted the help of studio whiz Leon Russell, then a member of the loose collective of musicians based in L.A. known as the Wrecking Crew who played on a crazy number of classic hits back in the day (they were the subjects of their own documentary). Russell reached out to all the studio musicians he knew that were available on short notice, while enlisting session vocalist Rita Coolidge to put together a gaggle of backing vocalists. The band had only a week of rehearsals before heading out on a grueling, 48 shows in 52 days tour.

A live album was later released as well as a concert film, both entitled Mad Dogs & Englishmen after the Noel Coward song (which Russell appropriated for his own song, “The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen” which he included on a later album). The tour became legendary largely for the array of talent that was in it and for the raucous sound which was largely unlike anything heard in a rock and roll concert up to that time – although, curiously, the critics were largely unimpressed by the album. In any case, after the tour ended, the band largely went their separate ways with both Russell and Coolidge amassing hits of their own.

In 2015, the Lockn’ Festival in Arlington, Virginia encouraged the acts they booked to bring together their influences, heroes and old bandmates to put together “dream sets.” The Tedeschi Trucks band, fronted by Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi, both formerly of the Allman Brothers, were big fans of Cocker and thought it was high time for a reunion of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band. Although Cocker by that point had passed away (in December of the previous year), they were able to get eleven members of the original tour to come and celebrate Cocker’s memory.

This film documents both the history of the original band, as well as the reunion of the band members. There is a great deal of concert footage, both from the original tour and the reunion show, both of which illustrate just how incredible the musicians were and are. There are oodles of interview subjects and while most of the recollections are fond and tinged with nostalgia, not everything was rosy – Coolidge recounts being physically assaulted by drummer Jim Gordon, her boyfriend at the time (Gordon was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been incarcerated since 1984 for murdering his mother) – but there is a refrain of similar sentiments throughout.

The movie doesn’t really reinvent the rock doc wheel, nor does it need to. Fans of Cocker will no doubt be eager to see this, and those who have a love for the musical style of the early 70s where country boogie, blues and gospel were all permeating rock and roll with a vitality that even then had begun to fade into the morass of stadium rock that punk would rebel against later in the decade. The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour were a brief shining moment, to be sure, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten and the reunion and resultant film will do a lot to make sure that it isn’t.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for fans.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joe Cocker came to fame in the United States following a legendary performance at Woodstock.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Another State of Mind
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2021 begins!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.