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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Cadillac Records


Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

(TriStar) Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui. Directed by Darnell Martin

Once in a great while, fortune and talent come together in a great confluence that allows the most unlikely of people to join together to become legends.

Leonard Chess (Brody), a Polish émigré to Chicago, has grand ambitions. Hoping to marry the love of his life Revetta (Chriqui), he opens a bar on the predominantly African-American South Side of Chicago. Hoping to draw in the local crowd, he hires local talent to play his stage. One of the first guys he finds is a gifted guitarist who goes by the name of Muddy Waters (Wright).

Muddy had been a Mississippi sharecropper before being “discovered” by Smithsonian-Folkways recording archivists, and being prompted to move to Chicago to play the Blues. His wife Geneva (Union) puts up with the rough living conditions and the late nights, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities.

So impressive is Muddy’s prowess that Chess buys a recording studio and founds a recording company he names after himself. However, Muddy’s career really goes into overdrive when he finds gifted harmonica player Little Walter (Short). Walter has a unique style that employs electric amplification, something only just coming into style back then. However, his abrasive personality and drinking problem leads him to be fired from Muddy’s band, although they still record together. Walter’s solo career, however, takes off on its own.

With songwriter/engineer Willie Dixon (Cedric) in the house, Chess has assembled a winning team which only gets better with the arrival of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and the great Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Berry’s unique blend of blues, country and r&b creates a bastard child that can only be labeled “rock and roll.” His music begins to cross over lines to white audiences and becomes Chess Records’ most successful artist.

Add into this mix the incredibly talented (and incredibly troubled) Etta James (Knowles) and you have a recipe for game-changing music, as well as for ego-driven conflicts. As the ‘60s dawn and musical tastes begin to change, the influence of the Chess artists becomes apparent even as their record sales begin to dwindle. Not everybody, sadly, will make it out alive.

Martin has a cinematic love letter to an era and to a record label in particular. Music underwent a profound change in the 1950s, and Chess and Sun Records were both at the forefront of that change – the birth of rock and roll out of country (Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and the blues (Chess Records). Only Motown Records in the ‘60s would have the same kind of effect on the musical landscape that these two labels did.

Leonard Chess actually co-founded the label with his brother Phillip, who for some odd reason is not even mentioned here. In any case, Brody gives a solid performance as the label head, who gave his artists Cadillacs when they completed their first record, but who may have played fast and loose with royalty payments.

Knowles, who has shown some real acting skills in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers: Goldmember, continues to impress with a powerful portrayal as Etta James. She captures the artists’ outer bravura as well as her inner fears and demons. Short, similarly, captures the larger-than-life aspects of an artist who burned brightly and was snuffed out all too soon.

It’s a shame that in a movie about Chess Records, little of the original music from these artists was used. Instead, the producers chose to have the songs re-recorded (Knowles does her own vocals on James’ hits ”At Last” and “I’d Rather Be Blind”), mostly by the actors playing the artists. While it’s admirable that the actors did their own singing, I’d rather have heard the original versions by Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry.

The filmmakers obviously have a reverence for Chess Records and its legacy. They gathered a strong cast and gave them some strong material to work with. This is a movie that helps illustrate the development of modern music, which is of more than passing interest to anyone who loves it. While the movie didn’t fare particularly well on its theatrical run, it is more than worth checking out. Yes, it’s an imperfect glimpse into the past but ultimately, a satisfying tribute to a label and the people on it who, together, changed music forever.

WHY RENT THIS: The story of Chess Records is an important historical event in the history of modern music and the movie covers it respectfully. Solid performances from an impressive cast, especially Knowles and Short.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plays a little fast and loose with the facts, and oddly, doesn’t use the music from the actual performers and instead recreates these iconic songs with the actors lending their voices.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sex and sexual situations, as well as drug use and some racially-motivated violence. Not for small fries.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Leonard Chess was originally to have been played by Matt Dillon, but he had to bow up due to scheduling conflicts. Adrien Brody wound up taking the part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes an interactive playlist maker that allows you to create and share playlists of the songs in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Zombieland