Streetlight Harmonies


A walk down Memory Lane.

(2020) Music Documentaries (Gravitas) Lamont Dozier, Lance Bass, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, Ron Dante, Brian Wilson, Freda Payne, Al Jardine, Brian McKnight, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, Anthony Gourdine, Sammy Strain, Vito Picone, Jimmy Merchant, Scherrie Payne, Diz Russell, Charlie Horner, Jeff Barry, Tony Butala, Leon Hughes, Janis Siegel, Florence LaRue, Lala Brooks. Directed by Brent Wilson

 

It was a different time. Kids used to gather on the street corners of Brooklyn, Harlem and Philadelphia, singing under the lights in the summer evening twilight, using close harmonies. And why not? Teenage girls loved it and there is nothing a teenage boy likes better than being the center of a teenage girl’s attention. Well, the straight ones anyway.

The style was called Doo-Wop and it would eventually come to be one of the most influential forms of music ever. You can draw a straight line from the Doo-Wop groups of the 40s and 50s through the girl groups of the 60s to the boy bands of the 90s. As Lance Bass of N’Sync notes, other genres will come and go but there will always be pop bands that utilize harmonies.

Some of these performers have been singing these songs for 60 years and more, and there are plenty of great bands here, like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Chantels, Jay and the Americans, the Orioles and so on, playing songs like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Sh-Boom.”  There are some stories that are heartwarming but a lot are anything but. Racial prejudice was common for these predominantly African-American groups who were often discriminated against by the very audiences dancing to their records. Many of those who were responsible for some of the most iconic songs of the 20th century were never paid royalties, or amounts that were almost insulting.

This isn’t really a definitive documentary – they’d need a mini-series for that – and it glosses over the history to a large degree. Wilson does a pretty good job using a clever motif of a 45 record to delineate various chapters of the documentary, and further graphics give a sense of what year various songs came out. Still, if you’re looking for more information, the film barely scratches the surface.

The good thing, though, is that you get to hear some of the music and it is essential music. Sure, it’s from a much more “innocent” time (even though Doo-Wop did play an essential role in the Civil Rights movement) and may sound a bit dated to modern ears, but the harmonies are timeless and so are most of the songs themselves. For some, this might make for a lovely walk down Memory Lane while for others this might serve as an introduction to a style of music that has influenced the pop music of every era since – including the current one.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is absolutely essential. Nice use of graphics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as informative as other docs of this type have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life Could Be a Dream
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hunter Killer

American Folk (September 12)


Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth are fine musicians but they’re not above being corny.

(2017) Drama (Good Deed) Joe Purdy, Amber Rubarth, David Fine, Krisha Fairchild, Bruce Beatty, Elizabeth Dennehy, Miranda LaDawn Hill, Emma Thatcher, Holger Moncada Jr., Julian Gopal, Lawrence Mandley, Noah Craft, Bradford Barnes, Paul White, Shelly West, Maryann Strossner, Andrew Walton (voice), Greg Williams, James Perry, Ricky Aynes, Isabella George Brown. Directed by David Heinz

 

The road movie is an institution as American as, well road trips themselves. Exploring our own country is something we often fail to do in our busy lives but there is something that is truly uplifting about getting in a car and driving down the open road in whatever direction you happen to fancy, particularly when we take the back roads and avoid the Interstates which are, I grant you, soulless and Godless.

Elliott (Purdy) is a folk musician in an L.A. hotel room with maybe the thinnest walls ever – or a neighbor in the adjoining room with the worst temper ever, constantly banging on the wall whenever Elliott softly strums his guitar and sings into the cassette deck, working on a song. He has to get to New York City to begin a gig as a member of a band called the Hairpin Triggers, a gig that he’s not overjoyed about but as his agent intimates, may be his last opportunity to continue to make a living as a musician.

He’s not much of a people person so as the flight takes off he puts on his headphones and zones out. However the bright perky woman sitting next to him, Joni (Rubarth) whips out a splitter and listens in. I’ve never had that happen on a flight before but I suppose in all the annals of transcontinental air travel it must have happened o someone. Anyway, rather than punching her in the face, he strikes up an awkward conversation with her that is cut off when the flight is turned around and forced to land back at LAX. It’s not because of engine trouble or a medical emergency – all flights are being grounded. The date is September 11, 2001.

Elliott desperately has to get to New York and Joni has to return to take care of her ailing mother who is under the auspices of a none-too-reliable sister so Joni invites Elliott back to the house she was staying in with family friend Scottie (Fairchild), an ex-hippie and former touring musician herself. She lends the two a 1972 Chevy Van (and only children who grew up in the 70s will appreciate the Sammy Johns reference) and off they go.

The van has a tendency to overheat so the Interstates are a non-starter. They take back highways instead until the van gives up the ghost in the desert. They are pointed in the direction of Vietnam vet Dale (Fine) who lives out in the sand dunes by himself but can fix just about anything. The two travelers begin to bond over music and a shared love of traditional American folk – the music of Pete Seeger, Odetta, Joan Baez and John Prine among others.

Along the way they run into other people who grab their attention but particularly a lesbian couple from San Francisco named Bianca (Hill) and Emily (Thatcher) who are on their way to Virginia to meet Bianca’s parents…and to come out to her very stiff-necked father (Beatty). Getting to New York the two begin to realize that it was truly  all about the journey and not the destination – and it would be a journey they’d remember forever.

I went into this movie thinking that it would be about folk music but in many ways it really isn’t. Think of the title for a moment – it’s not about American Folk but about American folks. This is a snapshot of a moment in our history when the country was drawing together and unifying in the face of a dreadful, horrible attack. That the unity that we experienced in those days and weeks following 9-11 has been completely lost makes it doubly tragic only 16 years after the fact.

Purdy and Rubarth make strong leads; Purdy is quiet and introspective, Rubarth outgoing and open-hearted. They are an opposites attract sort of couple but then again this is no rom-com; this is definitely a road movie and while they do bond there’s never a sense that they will remain together once they pull up in New York. Some viewers may end up wishing they had.

There is some great music on the soundtrack, much of it played and sung by Rubarth and Purdy (the two are touring together in support of the movie doing folk dates throughout the country). It is well that the filmmakers actually shot on the road rather than in a single state or soundstage; we get the flavor of the couple’s travels and that adds a lot to the enjoyment of the movie overall.

While the film gets a little flat in the middle, it does keep the interest high throughout. It has a gentle heart and a dulcimer’s soul, and the harmonies that Purdy and Rubarth make while singing echo in the very DNA of the film. I can’t say that there is anything particularly revelatory here – the healing power of music is well-known and road movies are nothing new, but still I found myself enjoying the journey. I think you just might, too.

REASONS TO GO: Purdy and Rubarth are surprisingly strong leads. The music the two make is really very good and the classic folk on the soundtrack works as well.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés scattered here and there. The movie loses some momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sophisticated themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Purdy and Rubarth are veteran singer/songwriters in folk and other American music forms. This is the first onscreen acting role for the both of them. In addition, this is Heinz’ debut as a feature film director after a long and distinguished career in film editing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Easy Rider
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tikli and Laxmi Bomb