Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen


Grizzled Leon Russell, veteran rock and roll sage.

(2021) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rita Coolidge, Leon Russell, Claudia Lennear, Joe Cocker, Doyle Bramhall, Chris Robinson, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Chris Stainton, Matthew Moore, Pamela Pollard, Bobby Jones, Chuck Blackwell, Bobby Torres, Dave Mason, David Fricke, Daniel Moore, Linda Wolf. Directed by Jesse Lauter

In 1970, Joe Cocker was a rising star, his big, blistering bluesy vocals having carved memorable performances at rock festivals around the world, including Woodstock. He had poured everything in him into achieving success and he was flat-out exhausted. There was a U.S. tour looming and he wanted to beg out of it, so he fired his entire band, hoping that would get him out of having to do the tour. The trouble is, the American promoters didn’t want the tour cancelled and put enormous pressure on Cocker to honor his commitments.

Without a band and with the tour dates approaching like a runaway freight train, he enlisted the help of studio whiz Leon Russell, then a member of the loose collective of musicians based in L.A. known as the Wrecking Crew who played on a crazy number of classic hits back in the day (they were the subjects of their own documentary). Russell reached out to all the studio musicians he knew that were available on short notice, while enlisting session vocalist Rita Coolidge to put together a gaggle of backing vocalists. The band had only a week of rehearsals before heading out on a grueling, 48 shows in 52 days tour.

A live album was later released as well as a concert film, both entitled Mad Dogs & Englishmen after the Noel Coward song (which Russell appropriated for his own song, “The Ballad of Mad Dogs and Englishmen” which he included on a later album). The tour became legendary largely for the array of talent that was in it and for the raucous sound which was largely unlike anything heard in a rock and roll concert up to that time – although, curiously, the critics were largely unimpressed by the album. In any case, after the tour ended, the band largely went their separate ways with both Russell and Coolidge amassing hits of their own.

In 2015, the Lockn’ Festival in Arlington, Virginia encouraged the acts they booked to bring together their influences, heroes and old bandmates to put together “dream sets.” The Tedeschi Trucks band, fronted by Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi, both formerly of the Allman Brothers, were big fans of Cocker and thought it was high time for a reunion of the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band. Although Cocker by that point had passed away (in December of the previous year), they were able to get eleven members of the original tour to come and celebrate Cocker’s memory.

This film documents both the history of the original band, as well as the reunion of the band members. There is a great deal of concert footage, both from the original tour and the reunion show, both of which illustrate just how incredible the musicians were and are. There are oodles of interview subjects and while most of the recollections are fond and tinged with nostalgia, not everything was rosy – Coolidge recounts being physically assaulted by drummer Jim Gordon, her boyfriend at the time (Gordon was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been incarcerated since 1984 for murdering his mother) – but there is a refrain of similar sentiments throughout.

The movie doesn’t really reinvent the rock doc wheel, nor does it need to. Fans of Cocker will no doubt be eager to see this, and those who have a love for the musical style of the early 70s where country boogie, blues and gospel were all permeating rock and roll with a vitality that even then had begun to fade into the morass of stadium rock that punk would rebel against later in the decade. The Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour were a brief shining moment, to be sure, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten and the reunion and resultant film will do a lot to make sure that it isn’t.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for fans.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joe Cocker came to fame in the United States following a legendary performance at Woodstock.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Another State of Mind
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness 2021 begins!

The Wrecking Crew


Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

(2008) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Cher, Brian Wilson, Mickey Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine, Dick Clark, Carol Kaye, Jimmy Webb, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, H.B. Barnum, Lou Adler, Al Casey, Bones Howe, Don Randi, Snuff Garrett, Bill Pittman, Carmie Tedesco. Directed by Denny Tedesco

When people look at the golden age of rock and roll, there are few better places to turn their gaze to than Southern California in the 60s and early 70s. Some of the most iconic music of the rock and roll era came from that time and place. Bands like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees and so on routinely recorded there. However mostly what they provided was the vocals; the music was actually made by someone else.

They were called The Wrecking Crew, although not by themselves. There were about 20 to 30 main players in the pool of studio musicians that lived in L.A. at the time (the movie lists more than 100) who appeared on the bulk of the albums that came out of the area, including from bands that were made up of actual musicians, like The Byrds.

One of the most respected of them was guitarist Tommy Tedesco. A raconteur with a great sense of humor, Tedesco also had the kind of skill that made him comfortably at home in any style of music. He was also a whiz at Spanish/Mexican guitar. He teamed often with bassist Carol Kaye (one of the few women among the Crew) who was responsible for iconic baselines such as the ones found in the Mission: Impossible theme and on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” Hal Blaine was also one of the most prolific and respected drummers of his time; as he himself recounts, the Crew judged each other not by how many gigs they got because all of them were fully booked, but how many they turned down.

The Crew also worked on movie and television theme songs (the guitar on the Bonanza theme song, for example, was Tedesco). It is actually kind of thrilling to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson play the iconic notes to the theme of The Pink Panther.

None of the Crew craved the limelight and only a few of them really achieved any notoriety, chief among them Glen Campbell who went on to a long career doing country-tinged easy listening music (with such hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Linesman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” many of which utilized his colleagues in the Wrecking Crew) as well as an acting career. They are almost without exception not listed on the albums they played on as musicians. However, their influence has been incalculable; Blaine himself played on seven straight Record of the Year Grammy winners, a feat that has never been duplicated before or since, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But largely the Crew labored in public obscurity, content to play music, collect large checks and shape rock and roll as we know it. The director, Denny Tedesco, is the son of Tommy and started this project in 1996 as a means of tribute to his father, who would pass away a year after he started filming the project although a group interview including his father plays a substantial roll in the documentary. There are also other subjects, like Dick Clark, who were alive when interviewed (and in Clark’s case, unaffected yet by the stroke he suffered in 2004). Campbell himself suffers from Alzheimer’s but was perfectly lucid in his pre-diagnosis days.

There are also interviews with the stars who they worked for. It is interesting to hear Cher, who normally is an effusive and self-confident interview when talking about her latest film project kind of revert to the shy and less confident personality she had when she was first starting out. We also get to see Brian Wilson talk about the Smile sessions that would later become the most famous album never released (although it has since) with some of the tracks showing up on the Pet Sounds album.

The music here is simply unbeatable. Nearly every clip brought a smile to my face. Not all of it was rock and roll; the Crew backed up all sorts of different musicians, including most of the members of the Rat Pack. We can hear Frank Sinatra joking with his daughter Nancy on audio tape taken from the sessions when they recorded “Something Stupid” together. Stuff like that is priceless.

It took Tedesco 13 years to assemble the film and nearly as long to get it released theatrically. As you can gather, getting the rights to use much of the music in the film was a formidable task It took a lot of money that the production didn’t have, so they used Kickstarter to acquire the funds to help them get permission. People of a certain age, however, will certainly appreciate the effort. While the filmmakers don’t really go too much into what the main folks in the Crew thought of their fame or lack thereof, or what happened as the business changed and studio musicians fell out of favor, but that dose of reality would likely have made this a lesser film. There are insights into the time and place of the Crew, but little of themselves. If you’re looking to get a feel for who these people really were, you won’t get much beyond “talented musicians with stories to tell.”

Still, Denny Tedesco wisely lets the music do the talking for them. It’s rare you get a movie where you exit the theater feeling better when you walked in; it’s even more rare when you learn something in the same movie. The Wrecking Crew accomplishes this and it might motivate you to go spend your paycheck on Amazon or iTunes gathering the songs here into your own personal collection, if they aren’t already there. If they aren’t, they should be.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some nice insights into a bygone era of music. Definitely a labor of love and it shows.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really delve into the issue of being “the men (and woman) behind the curtain.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some salty language here and there and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally played at the 2008 Florida Film Festival but took six years after that to get a distribution deal, finally getting a much-deserved theatrical release seven years after it was made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20 Feet From Stardom
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Run All Night

2013 Florida Film Festival Begins Tonight!


Florida Film Festival 2013

Tonight marks the beginning of the 2013 Florida Film Festival, one of the best in the world and an event we here at Cinema365 look forward to with great anticipation every year. This year is the biggest one yet with 170 films from 23 different countries that cover nearly the entire range of film genre, from animated to horror films to documentaries to dramas to comedies to romances and everything in between. The opening night movie at 7pm tonight (there are only standby tickets available but if you’re interested give it a shot, you never know) is Twenty Feet from Stardom, an acclaimed documentary about backup singers that reportedly had even the savvy audiences at Sundance dancing in the aisles. We’ll be publishing our review of the film sometime late tonight or tomorrow.

My own personal recommendations are The Forgotten Kingdom which might just be the best movie playing at the Festival – a South African film on the nature of the father-son bond that can transcend just about anything, as well as Starbuck which also looks at fatherhood from the perspective of a slacker who finds himself the father of over 500 kids through excessive sperm donation. Documentary lovers should keep an eye out for The Year of the Living Dead which looks at George A. Romero and his iconic film Night of the Living Dead and it’s cultural impact.

We’ll be there to cover all of those and plenty more. So many films that our coverage will extend well past the festival’s end. Each movie playing the festival this year will get the Festival logo on the review, even if the review is published after the festival is history. If you haven’t been to a film festival, this is the one to see – it’s where filmmakers, stars and fans hang out in one big fun party atmosphere.

To get you started, today’s Cinema365 review is of a movie that played at last year’s festival, Your Sister’s Sister. You can click on the link to read the review and get an idea of the kind of movie you’ll see at this year’s festival.

Well, I’m off to the Regal for the opening night festivities. Hope to see you all there or in the upcoming nine days!

UPDATE: Well, if you ever wondered why opening nights are special at film festivals, this is your answer: tonight was simply transformative. Not only was the movie, Twenty Feet from Stardom an amazing documentary that everyone who has ever been inspired by music should see, we were lucky enough to be sitting directly behind one of the subjects of the film, backing vocalist Merry Clayton (you may not know the name but you sure know the voice – she’s the female vocals in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) we were treated to a performance by Ms. Clayton singing Leon Russell’s classic “A Song for You” followed by a wonderfully spirited Q&A session with her and director Morgan Neville fielding questions from the blown-away audience.

A review of the movie will follow tomorrow but I’d have to say that the 2013 Florida Film Festival is off to an amazing start. Whatever you do, find a way to make it down here because this promises to be one of the best (if not the best) festival ever!