Country: Portraits of an American Sound


Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

Dolly Parton: Country cool, American icon.

(2015) Documentary (Arclight) Marty Stuart, Connie Smith, Lyle Lovett, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Henry Diltz, Sandi Spika Burchetta, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes, Lorrie Morgan, Rosanne Cash, Ronnie Milsap, Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers, Holly Williams, Jim Halsey, Raeann Rubenstein, Larry Gatlin, Dr. Diane Pecknold. Directed by Steven Kochones

 

Country music, whether or not you are a fan of it, has to be considered America’s soundtrack. Sure, rock and roll is just as American an invention but whereas rock became more of a world music, country has remained an essentially American sound. It is the music of rural America, the music of the working man (and woman) and one which has always held American values close to its beating heart.

Throughout its history, country music has been not only a music but a style and photographs have helped to not only capture that style but export it. There have been eras when country performers wore dazzling rhinestone-studded costumes onstage; other eras they have been dressed in their Sunday best and then there have been times when their attire of choice has been that of the cowboy – or the working farmer. There have even been times when country stars wore the latest fashions.

All of it has been captured by some of the great photographers of their era. Names like Henry Diltz, Les Leverett, Raeann Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner, Henry Horenstein and Michael Wilson have captured country’s biggest and shiniest stars in their lens. Through those lens, they didn’t just capture moments on stage, or posed publicity stills (although they did that too), but they captured the essence of who these artists were (and are). Through these pictures, we got to know the faces behind the voices and in a sense, got to know them as living, breathing people and not just talented musicians and singers.

Through the auspices of the Annenberg Space for Photography (a Los Angeles-based museum for the pictorial art and an offshoot of the Annenberg Foundation, a charitable institution that supports the arts) comes this documentary gathering some of not only the most iconic photographs in the history of country music but also a variety of images that help illustrate the rich history of country as well as its ongoing contribution to American culture.

Veteran documentarian Kochones (who founded Arclight, a distributor of terrific documentaries as well as some non-fiction films) has a wealth of material to draw from but that is very much a double edged sword; the hour and a half running time is not nearly enough. It isn’t often that I see a film in which I wish it was longer but that is the case here. The material could easily have filled a mini-series and maybe it should have. One of the biggest drawbacks to this particular film is that it feels rushed. While some of the stars and subjects get an adequate treatment, others feel almost glossed over. Perhaps a mini-series would have given the filmmakers time and space to give all of the subjects the attention they deserved.

Although there are a galaxy of country stars interviewed here it is the photographs that are justifiably the real center of attention. Some of them are amazing, like Johnny Clash flipping a very intense bird at the camera, a fresh-faced young Dolly Parton at the beginning of her career (and there’s a star I wish they had spent time interviewing) and the Carter Family looking stiff and formal like Civil War-era photographs taken sixty years later.

Lyle Lovett talks eloquently about country music being less about songs than about stories and so it is with the stars who sing those songs. They all are stories in their own right with their own personalities and their own experiences. They bring those to each and every song that they sing. The machinery of the business can sometimes in its zeal to manufacture an image forget that the stories that got these talents to their attention are what attract the fans the most; perhaps that’s a bit naïve on my part but I think that it’s true. Image is important in ANY musical genre of course – it’s a kind of shorthand that invites the listener in and allows them to be captured by the music – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. These images however not only define those stars but in many ways allow those stars to be themselves for all to see.

This is definitely going to appeal to all true fans of country music, although they might not be satisfied with the snippets of songs that are played, but even non-fans will find this very educational. I am more an admirer of country than a lover of it – like rap music, it doesn’t speak to me as much as rock and roll does – but even someone who isn’t a true believer such as myself can respect the relationship the stars have with their fans and at the hard work and talent displayed not only by the musicians but by the photographers who created the images that helped establish them as stars.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is high quality. The images depicted here are an absolute treasure that will delight fans young and old of the genre.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit rushed; it might have been better served as a mini-series.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1974 the Grand Ole Opry has been performed in the Grand Ole Opry House; previous to that it was held at the Ryman Auditorium; during the winter months the Opry returns to the Ryman for three months November through January.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonGoogle Play, iTunes, Vimeo, VuduYouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and  the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Gold

Advertisements

Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police


It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47