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!

Gimme Danger


Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it's 2016.

Iggy Pop seems a little surprised to discover that it’s 2016.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Magnolia/Amazon) Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Danny Fields, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Ewan McGregor, Ed Sanders. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

The aphorism is that true artists are not appreciated in their own time. That is certainly true of the Stooges, a seminal Midwestern hard rock band that erupted from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the late 60s only to self-destruct in 1971, only to return a year later like a bad penny, then break up again for nearly 30 years in 1973 until a resurrection in 2003.

Their music received scathing reviews from critics who didn’t know what to make of them and the public took little interest; their record sales were tepid at best. Still, they became one of the founding influences of punk rock and their music influences nearly every heavy music artist of the 80s and afterwards.

Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch is a clear fan of the band, having cast frontman Iggy Pop in two of his movies and it is equally clear that this is essentially a love letter to the band. Although incomprehensibly Jarmusch begins his film with the 1973 break-up, he then goes back to their roots and tells the story in a more linear fashion from there.

Mostly told through the music documentary tropes of talking heads interviews interspersed with performance footage and animated recreations of events, the movie captures the band’s management woes along with their descent into drug addiction – nearly the entire band was at one time on heroin which led to missed gigs, sloppy performances and poor decisions. In their glory, the band was raw and primal, a kind of primitive rock and roll which would have been equally at home with banging on rocks as it was with electric guitars.

Pop was the consummate front man, performing shirtless and dancing like an epileptic male exotic dancer whose DNA was equal parts Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. His bandmates – guitarists Ron Asheton and James Williamson, bassist Dave Alexander, saxophonist Steve Mackay and drummer Scott Asheton – tended to stare at the floor and move very little allowing their frenetic frontman to do the heavy lifting.

Pop and Williamson are the only surviving band members of the band’s glory years and each of them is compelling in their own way (Mackay and the Asheton brothers both lived into the 21st century and there are plenty of interview clips with them; Alexander passed away in 1975 and as a result we see him only In performance clips and publicity stills). Pop is surprisingly intellectual and a pretty entertaining raconteur; Williamson, who spent most of their post-breakup era as a software engineer for Sony, has a much more objective perspective of the band.

The solo career of Iggy Pop, which netted classic rockers like “Lust for Life,” isn’t mentioned here although the post-Stooge efforts of the other band members is gone into in some detail. There is also little outside perspective of the band itself; nearly all of the interviews are with the band members, Danny Fields and Kathy Asheton, sister to the Asheton brothers. Only bassist Mike Watt, who performed with a 21st iteration of the band, is interviewed.

There is also surprisingly little of their music used on the soundtrack. We do get to hear those magnificent opening chords to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” but we hear it several times during the film. I get that there is precious little performance footage from the band’s 1970s era but one gets a sense that what we’re seeing here is pretty much readily available elsewhere, or at least that’s what I get from Internet comments on the documentary by fans of the group.

I was a bit surprised at how ordinary the documentary was. Jarmusch has a reputation for turning convention on its ear, but this is as conventional a music documentary as you’re likely to find. Maybe Jarmusch is too close to the subject; they are surely worthy of a documentary but this is one of those occasions where the subject of a documentary isn’t done justice by the documentary itself. Still, the Stooges are so compelling a story, Pop so entertaining a storyteller that I can freely recommend this to not only fans of the group but students of rock music history in general.

REASONS TO GO: The Stooges make for compelling subjects and Iggy is an interesting storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is disturbingly light on actual music.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of profanity and drug references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Danny Fields had been sent by Elektra Records to scout the MC5 for which the Stooges were opening; impressed by both Michigan groups, he signed the MC5 for $20K and the Stooges for $5K.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We are Twisted Fucking Sister
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Doctor Strange