Horn from the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story


Student and sensei: Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters.

(2017) Dramedy (Abramorama) Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Peter Butterfield, Jac Holzman, Maria Muldaur, David Sanborn, Sam Lay, Lee Butterfield, Mark Naftalin, BB King, Paul Shaffer, Al Kooper, Jim Rooney, Marshall Chess, Gabriel Butterfield, Buzz Feiten, Jim Kweskin, Joe Boyd, Clydie King, Happy Traum, Bonnie Raitt, Kathy Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Cindy Cashdollar. Directed by John Anderson

 

Not many modern music lovers – unless they cherish the blues and blues rock of the 70s – remember the name of Paul Butterfield and if they do, it’s only vaguely. Most have not heard his music. Butterfield was a Chicago bluesman who grew up in Hyde Park, a white enclave surrounded by African-American communities. There were dozens of blues clubs around him growing up and he got hooked on the sound early, trading in the flute that his classical music-loving father wanted him to play for the harmonica.

He would become one of the most influential musicians of his time. His band was integrated at a time when that was not common. He was a protégé of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf, who both had the prescience to see that for the blues to grow it had to attract white audiences and in order to do that, white musicians. Butterfield was one of the best of those, even as the blues was taking hold in Britain and British musicians were enthusiastically promoting the American masters who inspired them.

The movie is pretty standard documentary filmmaking, stylistically speaking. There are plenty of interviews with friends, families and musicians although in this case, musicians who actually played with Butterfield and none who were inspired by him. There is a fairly notable lack of contemporary musical figures, although Raitt, Sanborn and Bishop are still active.

The performance footage from Butterfield’s early years and salad days is particularly of interest. He had a well-earned reputation as a blistering performer – bandmates routinely describe him as a “force of nature” and “as intense as it gets.” There’s no substitute for being physically present at a life show of course but the footage gives an idea of how dynamic a performer he truly was. There is also footage from later on his career including some from the last months of his life but they pale in comparison.

Some of the footage is from the ground-breaking Newport Jazz Festival of 1965 in which Bob Dylan famously went electric. Most people don’t know that it was Butterfield and his blues band – which at the time included Elvin Bishop and Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold – that backed up Dylan at the Festival. While it vastly offended purists who believed folk (and the blues, come to that) should be acoustic music, the genii was out of the bottle. They had influenced rock and roll and now rock was returning the favor.

Butterfield’s decline was as heartbreaking as it was inevitable. He had moved his family to Woodstock, New York (before the famous rock festival) and lived a simple country life with his second wife Kathy and son Lee (he had a son Gabriel from his first marriage) when he was home but that wasn’t often. Butterfield had never been what you would call a consumer of healthy food and years of hard drinking, drug abuse and stress had led to a painful digestive ailment called peritonitis. He essentially ignored it and continued to play and party hard, which led to Kathy and Gabriel leaving him. The disintegration of his family apparently weighed heavily on him. His career took a turn downward as the blues became less popular and as the 70s came to a close receded into the province of being a somewhat cult music rather than a popular one. While it remains vital today, it doesn’t capture the popular imagination as it did in Butterfield’s era.

He died far too young at age 44 of a heroin overdose. His legacy however remains, even if most people are unaware of it. I wish the filmmakers had taken the time to talk to those carrying on that legacy rather than those who were contemporaries; it might have urged more people unfamiliar with his music to give him a try. Those who might be interested should check out his self-titled first album and the second, East-West which also was one of the early shapers of jazz fusion.

At the end of the day, this is not really an essential documentary although I wish it could have been. Truly, this is going to remain a niche film, appealing mainly to fans of Butterfield and of the genre in general. It’s unlikely to convert many new fans which is a shame because the music speaks for itself. I myself am not a particular lover of the blues but I do respect the blues and those who play it well. Butterfield was one of the very best and his music ignites and inspires just as intensely now as it did when he was still alive.

The film is scheduled to play Orlando on November 14 at the Gallery on Avalon Island. For those not willing to wait that long or want to make additional showings, it will also be playing at the Cine-World Film Festival in Sarasota on November 2, 6 and 11 – all at the Burns Court Cinema, one of the two venues for the Festival. Tickets for the Festival can be purchased online here. Click on the same link for further information about the Festival which has an impressive line-up this year.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is mind-blowing. Fans of Butterfield and of the blues genre in general will love this.
REASONS TO STAY: This is essentially a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Butterfield is a member of both the blues and rock and roll Halls of Fame.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howlin Wolf Story – The Secret History of Rock and Roll
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

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Sidemen: Long Road to Glory


It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin, Marc Maron (voice), Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, John Landis, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Margolin, Gary Davis, Ilene Louise Smith, Johnny Winters, Paul Nelson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bonnie Raitt. Directed by Scott D. Rosenbaum

 

Pinetop Perkins. Hubert Sumlin. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. They are three giants in the history of the blues and huge influences on the sound of rock and roll. Sumlin was the guitar genius behind Howlin Wolf while Smith and Perkins played drums and piano for Muddy Waters. They have influenced bluesmen like the late Johnny Winters and Bonnie Raitt as well as rockers like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and the Rolling Stones.

None of those three men have really gotten their due; even in their own genre they were overshadows by the men they backed up. They were true sidemen, and while they wore the label with pride they also felt the injustice of it – referring to the bandleaders they played for, Perkins mused “They got all the money and we got all the scraps.”

This documentary aims to remedy that. Rosenbaum – who in his debut feature film The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll posited a blues all-star band featuring these three giants and later saw life imitate art when the three men created their own band that would eventually win a Grammy – celebrates the life and art of these three sidemen. There’s a good deal of testimonial from Raitt, Winters, the late Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa. Perhaps a little too much; the movie professes a little too much adulation and while the praise is richly deserved, it gets to be a bit much as we hear over and over how great these guys were. We get it; what I really wanted to hear was their story.

When the film is concentrating on the story rather than the talking heads, it really hits its stride. All three of the men are natural storytellers and as you might imagine they have some stories to tell. Smith in particular is a delight to watch with an infectious smile and contagious laugh. If one person stands out from this documentary, it’s Smith..

We get a pretty good history from these guys, from their beginnings as the sons of sharecroppers, to their move to Chicago to find better economic opportunities to their days playing for Wolf and Waters and finally after both Wolf and Waters passed away, their days establishing themselves all over again. Some of the stories have a bit of a name-dropping element to them, as when Perkins recalls the time that Jimi Hendrix unexpectedly showed up at a concert, and others are told with gentle affection, as when Sumlin tells about how Clapton got on the notoriously curmudgeon Wolf’s good side by asking him to show them how “Little Red Rooster” was played, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the song.

There is some lovely archival footage of Wolf and Waters which is worth its weight in gold and the audio clips of the great blues songs these men were part of will absolutely send chills up your spine. There is a bit of an elegiac tone to the film however; the interviews with Winters and Allman took place before the musicians passed away. Also the three blues men in question have all since passed away – within eight months of each other, Perkins less than a month after the three won their Grammy.

Although they are gone, their legend lives on. There is a very real effort underway to get them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, none of whom are currently inducted in and definitely should be. This is a documentary that should have been made. I would have preferred to hear more from the three gentlemen in question and less from the talking heads, but to be fair Smith, Sumlin and Perkins were interviewed during their final tour back in 2010 and little interview footage otherwise exists. That’s the true shame – the stories and memories that the three men had between them are gone with them.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. Smith is absolutely delightful throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: More anecdotes and less adulation would have been welcome. The film over-relies on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins earned his only Grammy at age 97 (along with Smith and Sumlin) for Joined at the Hip which makes him the oldest Grammy recipient ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twenty Feet from Stardom
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liza, Liza, Skies of Grey

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2