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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Hobo With a Shotgun


Hobo With a Shotgun

Whaddaya mean they’re remaking Blade Runner?

(2011) Action (Magnet) Rutger Hauer, Brian Downey, Molly Dunsworth, Nick Bateman, Drew O’Hara, Jeremy Akerman, Tim Dunn, Duane Patterson, Brian Jamieson, Robb Wells, Agnes Laan , Pasha Ebrahimi, Gregory Smith, Andre Haines, Juanita Peters. Directed by Jason Eisener

 

Things are tough all over. In some places, they are much rougher. Some places are ruled by anarchy, corruption and violence. The weak are defenseless. Places like that require a hobo. With a shotgun.

Hope City is exactly a place like that. It is ruled, effectively, by Drake (Downey), a gregarious hoodlum who likes conducting his executions game-show style, executions carried out by his sadistic sons Ivan (Bateman) and Slick (Smith). Into this carnival of chaos comes the Hobo (Hauer) who rides the rails into the one town he probably should have kept going at. He witnesses the public execution of Drake’s brother Logan (Wells) but as this isn’t any of his business, he simply moves on.

When he sees a lawnmower in a pawnshop window for $50 (okay, $49.99 – puh-leeease, it’s fifty dollars okay? Friggen retailers) it rekindles dreams of owning a lawn mowing business. Of stability. A future. He aims to buy it but being a hobo he has no money. So he goes panhandling. That night he witnesses Slick and Ivan harassing a young man in a video arcade before a heart of gold prostitute named Abby (Dunsworth) tries to intercede. The psychos turn on her, intending to kill her for her temerity but the Hobo knocks out Slick and takes him to the police station to place him under citizen’s arrest.

Except that the Police Chief (Akerman) is as corrupt as they come. He and his goons carve the word “Scum” in the Hobo’s chest and throw him in a dumpster behind the police station. Abby comes upon the Hobo as he stumbles through town, delirious and dripping blood. She takes him to her apartment and nurses him back to health. Once he is healthy, he decides to finish what he started. He finds a cameraman (Ebrahimi) who films homeless people doing degrading things. After the Hobo performs several acts of humiliation (including chewing on broken glass), the cameraman pays him enough to cover the lawnmower.

The Hobo goes into the pawn shop to purchase the mower but as he does, three hoods come in and rob the place. When they threaten a new mother and her baby, the Hobo snaps. He grabs a shotgun off the rack and proceeds to ventilate all three of the thugs. When he discovers that the firearm is the same price as the lawnmower, he opts for the shotgun.

Pushed to his limit, he decides to clean up Hope Town. He takes out pimps, drug dealers, pedophiles and the cameraman who he chewed broken glass for. His actions unite the townspeople who begin questioning the order of things. This is something Drake cannot allow so he orders Slick and Ivan to bring him the head of the Hobo. In order to get him out of the open, they deliberately set fire to a crowded school bus. They also put a bounty on the Hobo’s head, hinting that further atrocities would be in the town’s future if someone didn’t find him and kill him. Looks like the Hobo’s going to need an awful lot of shells.

This movie started life in a peculiar way. When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made Grindhouse back in 2007 (complete with faux trailers), the studio held a contest to find the best fan-made exploitation trailer. The winner was Eisener, whose trailer for Hobo With a Shotgun was famously made for $120 and was included on the Blu-Ray edition of the film as well as in some parts of Canada with the theatrical release. As interest in the fake trailers being made into movies increased, screenwriter John Davies penned a full-length version of the contest winner and Eisener was able to gain enough financing to get it made.

Even though he had limited filmmaking experience, he made a solid decision in casting Hauer in the title role. One of the most admired actors of the ’80s (who can forget his performance as Roy Batty in Blade Runner or Navarre in Ladyhawke?), he has been consigned to a lot of made for cable movies and supporting roles in medium-sized films, having a reputation not unlike Jean Claude van Damme and Steven Seagal. This is one of his better performances of the last 20 years of his career; there is a strange gravitas to the Hobo and even though he goes batcrap on us, he is still believable even at his most outrageous. The dialogue he has to deliver is pretty cheesy and full-on Times Square B-movie but that’s part of the charm.

The gore and nudity are very reminiscent of the splatter movies of the 70s and early 80s. That’s a double-edged sword; it carries all the visceral thrills of those films and all the drawbacks – the hackneyed dialogue, the improbable plot, the woeful acting. Besides Hauer, Bateman and Dunsworth rise above. Bateman (no relation to Jason) is an ex-Abercrombie and Fitch model who turns out to have some decent acting chops; he plays the amoral, psychotic Ivan with gusto and just enough restraint to keep the character from sinking into caricature. Dunsworth is a fresh and pretty face who turns from hooker with a heart of gold into a legitimate badass and if you think that’s an easy transition, guess again. She does both aspects of Abby convincingly.

There is a good deal of gratuitous gore and sex here, as you would expect from a grindhouse film. There are also some drawbacks; some incredibly cheesy dialogue (some of which is just plain painful)  and a plot that beggars description. It goes incredibly over the top which can be a very acquired taste; in all honesty I usually like this kind of thing, but I found it to be uneven in terms of performance other than those specified. I get the sense that Eisener was trying to make a grindhouse film rather than just referencing them, but in the end he succeeded too well. What we tend to forget about those films we remember with such affection is that most of them were pretty bad.

WHY RENT THIS: A great reminder of ’70s exploitation films. Hauer gives the character gravitas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Also a great reminder of the flaws of ’70s exploitation films.

FAMILY VALUES: Extreme amounts of gore, violence and bad language; a good deal of sexuality and some partial nudity. Oh, and drug use too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie was shot digitally, it was digitally processed during post-production to look as if it had been shot and processed the same way B-movies were in the ’70s, resulting in a look that’s oversaturated with shifted colors.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview by Fangoria magazine editor Michael Gingold with Hauer and Eisener. There is also a documentary on the making of the film from its beginnings as a $120 fan trailer to its Sundance premiere.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $703, 372 on an unreported production budget; I’m pretty sure the movie lost money, although it’s possible it did not..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Machete

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Last Samurai