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

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Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon


Shenanigans in a bygone era.

Shenanigans in a bygone era.

(2015) Documentary (4th Row) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, Christopher Buckley, Ellis Weiner, Al Jean, Chevy Chase, Sean Kelly, Ivan Reitman, Judd Apatow, Jon Landis, Michael Gross, Judith Jacklin Belushi, Chris MIller, Danny Abelson, Mike Reiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Taylor, Brian McConnachie, Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Doug Tirola

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the interest of transparency, I was a Mad magazine kid growing up and the National Lampoon, while on my radar, was a bit more sophisticated than my young mind could grasp. However, there’s no denying that for the last 40 years, the Lampoon has been essentially the wellspring of American humor, From its pages, films, radio and stage shows have come some of the most important writing and performing talents in comedy. It has directly or indirectly inspired the comedy of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and the comedies of John Hughes, Jon Landis and Judd Apatow. Even for those who weren’t directly involved with either writing it or reading it, its influence has shaped them whether they’ve known it or not.

The Lampoon began with the Harvard Lampoon, one of the country’s oldest humor magazines. Two Harvard grads who’d worked on the magazine (and also co-wrote the now-classic parody novel Bored of the Rings) named Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard. After creating some parody magazines for such publications as Mademoiselle, they got together with Matty Simmons to create the National Lampoon.

The nascent magazine was able to attract such talent as writers Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke and Anne Beatts, as well as artists like Rick Meyerowitz and Michael Gross. Their heyday, during the heady days of Watergate and Vietnam, reflected the country’s angst, anger and frustrations but also pushed the boundaries of humor beyond what had been acceptable what to then. The Lampoon printed what most people were already thinking, only funnier.

The magazine was as rock and roll as comedy ever gets and as most students of rock know, that’s a double edged sword. Sure the magazine was innovative and ahead of its time in many ways, but the creative forces that powered it were prone to drug addiction, burn-out and attrition. While the 70s waned and the 80s waxed, the magazine which had by then branched out into films with Animal House and National Lampoon’s Vacation series, had lost most of those who were it’s creative soul – Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 and the company really never recovered.

But oh, what a legacy it has left behind. The filmmakers sift through hundreds of hours of archival footage including their stage shows, audio of their radio show and page after page after page of their magazine. Those who were readers of the magazine will get a nice sense of nostalgia while those who weren’t will get a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Nearly the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the Lampoon stage show, and director John Hughes was on the writing staff during the later years of the magazine, as were Simpsons show runners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

There are a ton of interviews with the surviving staff of the magazine’s golden era, with Simmons and Beard getting the lion share of face time, while much attention is paid to the writers, artists, performers and celebrity fans of the magazine and its spinoffs. While this isn’t groundbreaking style here, because the material is just so freaking funny (I was breathless with laughter when the film finally spun its final credits) that I’m willing to overlook the lack of innovation, which is a bit ironic since the magazine was known for innovation.

Be that as it may, this is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year and likely for a lot of years to come. Even though some of the material is dated, a lot of it is timeless as well and is as funny now as it was then. Whether you’r of the generation that made the magazine what it was or a Johnny-come-lately, this is a don’t-miss documentary that you should be absolutely certain to catch when it hits the festival circuit near you, or hopefully when it gets a richly deserved distribution deal and shows up either theatrically or on VOD. Whatever the case may be, see it. Or I’ll shoot this dog.

REASONS TO GO: Excepts from Lampoon radio broadcasts and live shows hysterical. The source for humor in its era.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its era. Lots and lots of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity, crude and sexual humor, plenty of foul language and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s poster was drawn by Rick Meyerowitz who also drew the poster for National Lampoon’s Animal House and is modeled on its design.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Live From New York!
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Welcome to Leith

The Punk Singer


The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

The amazing Kathleen Hanna.

(2013) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Kathleen Hanna, Adam Horovitz, Tobi Vail, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Johanna Fateman, Corin Tucker, Tavi Gevinson, Jocelyn Samson, Lynn Breedlove, Kathryn Wilcox, Jennifer Baumgardner, Billy Karren, JD Samson, Leo Galland, Tamra Davis, Allison Wolfe, Jen Smith, Ann Powers. Directed by Sini Anderson

Feminism has deep roots going back to the women’s suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony and continuing through the 60s, the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (which remains unpassed) and Gloria Steinem. There were many who thought the feminist movement to be dead. Don’t tell the Riot Grrrls that.

Riot Grrrls is a movement that sprung primarily out of punk music made primarily by women which addressed women’s issues and adopted an aggressive feminist stance. One of the major forces in that movement was the band Bikini Kill and their primary songwriter, singer and frontwoman Kathleen Hanna.

Bikini Kill grew up in the Pacific Northwest but later relocated to Washington DC. They were often misunderstood by the general public and frankly misrepresented by the press as man-haters (which they clearly weren’t as the band’s guitarist, Billy Karren, is male). Hanna was also often described as the victim of rape by her father which she in the film addresses as completely untrue (rape and sexual abuse are frequent topics for Hanna in both Bikini Kill and her next band, Le Tigre).

As a stage performer, Hanna is energetic and passionate. She used her sexuality as a form of expression and her gamine good looks, which remind me of Zooey Deschanel, are arresting. One of her trademarks is to call women to the front by the stage and to ask men to stay in the back; this was a safety issue as at punk shows moshing could get violent and cause women to be injured and molested. Hanna wanted Bikini Kill shows to be safe places for women.

She is married to Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, which makes for an interesting couple. He comes from a band who has written lyrics about women that are less than complimentary but he comes off as a devoted husband and one who supports his wife and her viewpoint completely. They’ve been married seven years although they’ve been together for much longer than that which is unusually long for relationships among rock musicians.

Hanna stopped performing back in 2005 and for a long while many of those who knew her didn’t know why. She used this film which debuted at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which I personally think is the perfect place for a film like this) to announce that she had been diagnosed with late state Lyme’s Disease which prevented her from performing – she had told her bandmates in Le Tigre that she felt she had written everything she wanted to say which she in the film admits was untrue but that she felt safer in saying that than in admitting she no longer had control over her own body.

Cinematically, the movie doesn’t break any new ground as a documentary. Fans of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre will be happy to discover that there is plenty of archival footage of both bands – some of it never seen publically. There are a great many talking head interviews, mainly with women at Hanna’s request – she didn’t want the film to be “validated” by male experts which I can kind of understand, given her point of view.

Her performance with her new band The Julie Ruin (named for her solo album) at the Knitting Factory in New York City is captured at the end of the movie. It seems that Hanna is going to be back writing and maybe performing (although I can’t imagine she’ll be performing nearly as much) which to my mind is a welcome thing.

I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with Hanna shortly before she instituted a press blackout after continual misrepresentations in the mainstream press about her band and her philosophy. I was pretty much still finding my way politically so I’m afraid I probably came off as something of an oaf at the time, but I remember her passion, her humor and how articulately she expressed herself. One of the things I remember is asking why the Pacific Northwest seemed to be such a catalyst for social change as well as giving the world grunge. I don’t remember exactly what she replied but the thought clearly amused her. Obviously I was eager to see the film when I discovered it would be playing at the Enzian.

If I had the chance to interview her again, the one question I’d be interested in having her answer is whether the feminism she practices divides the sexes further and whether or not it would be healthier to encourage unity between the sexes. However, I must say that I came away from the film with three things. First, as a film it would have been better if it relied less on talking heads. Secondly, that feminism is far from dead and given the current war on women being practiced by the radical right, that it is needed much more now than ever. Thirdly, I came away respecting Ms. Hanna even more than I already did which was considerably. Even if you aren’t into punk or electroclash music (which my wife isn’t) you can still find a lot to appreciate in this movie.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by nearly all of the cast. A lovely walk down Memory Lane.

REASONS TO STAY: Diverges from fact a few times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the language is rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign as well as by a benefit concert at the Knitting Factory headlined by Gordon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Days

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom