Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary


John Coltrane in the abstract.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Denzel Washington (voice), John Coltrane, Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Antonia Andrews, Oran Coltrane, Ashley Kahn, Ben Ratliff, Kamasi Washington, Benny Golson, Michelle Coltrane. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the pantheon of jazz greats, alto saxophonist John Coltrane has to stand out among its most enduring and influential figures. While never as popular as, say, Louis Armstrong (although he did have a big hit in a revved up version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music back in 1961) his music helped jazz evolve and changed, as Carlos Santana notes, the very nucleus of jazz.

This documentary starts in media res with a heroin-addicted and alcoholic Coltrane in 1957 being fired from the Miles Davis Quintet where he had begun to hone his reputation. He faced a crossroads and a vital decision; whether to continue with the heroin and end up like his idol Charlie Parker or to turn his back on the drugs and potentially embrace greatness. He would choose the latter, kicking heroin cold turkey which shows a strength of will that characterized his entire life.

He grew up in North Carolina in a home where both his grandfathers were preachers which gave him a spiritual influence that remained with him all his life. Although he didn’t adhere to a single religion, he studied nearly all of them and incorporated them into his inspirations. He joined the Navy as World War II was ending and his first known recordings were as part of a Navy jazz band and, as Wynton Marsalis put it kindly, didn’t sound like he had much potential.

But he had the good fortune to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and after being fired from that gig, Thelonious Monk – all jazz legends – which helped him find his confidence to grow and embrace change. Davis would accept Coltrane back for a second stint that would include one of Davis’ pivotal albums, Almost Blue which Coltrane recorded simultaneously with his own breakout album, Giant Steps. Shortly after that, Coltrane struck out on his own.

Although his career was short in years (he would die suddenly at the age of 40 of liver cancer), he was prolific releasing some 60 albums in the last decade of his life. Scheinfeld closely follows the arc of his influences, from bebop to free jazz to music that can only be called Coltrane. It is somewhat daunting to wonder what he would have come up with and how further he would have changed music had he lived another 20 or 30 years.

The archival footage and photographs are fascinating and the interviews – particularly with social commentator, activist and academic Cornel West (who at times is almost testifying to Coltrane in a religious fervor) and former President Bill Clinton who is surprisingly insightful into Coltrane’s art. While actor Denzel Washington reads from Coltrane’s writings, we never hear the jazz legend’s actual voice; he was notoriously interview-shy. While we don’t hear Coltrane’s actual voice here, his music does the talking. It’s as much an expression of his inner soul as we are going to find. Of particular note in that regard is “Alabama,” inspired by the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piece is mournful and yet hopeful; it follows the cadence of Dr. King’s speech and uplifts even as it grieves. It is as compelling a composition as has ever been written.

While we don’t hear Coltrane’s voice directly his personality comes to the fore mainly through the interviews with family and friends; his stepdaughter recalls him walking home late at night from a gig so he could spend his cash on shoes that she needed the next morning rather than spending it on cab fare. His childhood friend Jimmy Heath recalls how much he practiced, sometimes just fingering the sax in hotel rooms after angry guests complained about the noise.

In some ways the movie serves as a jumping off point for the music of Coltrane, although those who don’t “get” jazz may not necessarily find it compelling. However, the hope is that the film will introduce new generations to music that is sometimes described in overly enthusiastic terms. I don’t know that Coltrane’s music will change your life but it conceivably could; it has done so for many, many listeners and not all of them jazz aficionados. I don’t know that this is the ultimate tribute for Coltrane – there are an awful lot of talking heads and we don’t get as much context into the music as I might have liked  but this is an excellent place to start.

REASONS TO GO: The music is just incredible. The footage of Coltrane and his band is fascinating. The use of graphics is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. The film may not appeal to those who aren’t into jazz.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug content and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio footage of Coltrane recording was discovered in a California garage while production was underway; the filmmakers arranged for the footage to be incorporated into the film and this is the first time it has been seen anywhere, or at least for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
FINAL RATING:7.5/10
NEXT: Kong: Skull Island

Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You

Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

documented

Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

I Am Thor


It's good to be Thor.

It’s good to be Thor.

(2015) Music Documentary (Blue Lame 61) Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Rusty Hamilton, Jack Cionne, Katherine Elo, Stuart Morales, Thundergeek, D. Stevens, Steve Zazzi, Frank Soda, Nik Turner, Jack Holmstrom, Ed Prescott, Bruce Duff, Mark Weiss, Al Higbee, Mike Muzziani, Don Hill, Frank Meyer, Ben Perman, Ani Kyd, Linda Dawe. Directed by Ryan Wise

Florida Film Festival 2015

Some of our rock gods live in palaces, Taj Mahal-like and florid. They are truly Gods among men, regal and unlike us mortals in every way. We aspire to their greatness for they are great indeed, touching millions of lives in different ways. Then again, some of our rock gods live in trailer parks. They scrape and struggle to get by, trying to bring their music to the masses and somehow, failing. It isn’t always because their music isn’t up to snuff; sometimes it’s bad decisions or just plain bad luck.

Jon Mikl Thor is one such rock god. In the 1970s, he took up bodybuilding and as a baby-faced blonde youth, he showed some promise. What he really wanted to do was entertain however, and so he went to Las Vegas where he starred as a nude waiter in a Vegas revue – until someone with a bigger package took his spot.

So Jon picked himself up, dusted himself off, went back home to his native Canada and put together a band. I mean, doesn’t everybody? The strange thing was, this band had talent. They had potential. They had a contract with RCA in Canada. The band called itself Thor, after Jon’s onstage persona. And on the eve of their debut album release, a dispute erupted between the record label and the band’s management company. And in the middle of all this, Jon disappeared. Indeed, he was kidnapped – or at least he says he was and while perhaps you might be skeptical as you see him discussing this early on in the documentary, as the film wears on you come to believe that Jon Mikl Thor is a lot of things but he isn’t a liar.

This incident alone could have sustained a documentary but Wise, who followed the band for 15 years, instead focuses on the band’s attempts to break out into mainstream prominence. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a man on a mission who at every turn sees his mission prevented. And the hell of it is, Thor is actually a pretty damn good band. They actually deserve to have some fame, and yet it eludes them. That doesn’t mean that Jon and his bandmates have given up on the dream, or more importantly on themselves.

Now on the over side of 60, Jon continues to chase the rainbow of success. He keeps up a cheerful and optimistic attitude, perhaps to the point where he might be considered delusional. I have to admit that at first, I thought he had a problem distinguishing reality with desire, but the more I got into the movie, I began to realize that he still believes in the dream and knows full well the uphill battle he’s fighting. He also understands the inherent ridiculousness of a man putting on fake armor and battling fake monsters onstage.

Indeed, Thor is an engaging and charismatic guy. Not only does he have plenty of onstage presence, enough to grab the attention of a gigantic rock festival crowd, he also is humble and likable offstage (which is his Canadian heritage showing, eh?) which helps make this a fascinating view. I had no problem spending an hour and a half with Jon Mikl Thor and wouldn’t have minded hanging out with him for a much longer time.

Thor’s live show is, even by metal standards, something to behold. Many of Thor’s bodybuilding feats are displayed, from blowing up a hot water bottle through his own lung power until it explodes, to bending steel bars to having concrete blocks broken on his chest. Thor is an impressive entertainer and he is canny enough to surround himself with some superb musicians, particularly Price and Favata.

I have to admit that while I like heavy metal and listen to it from time to time, I’m not much of a fan and while I was semi-aware of who Thor is, I didn’t really expect much from this documentary. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that this is not only entertaining but poignant. You end up rooting for a man who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who’s had more than his share of bad  breaks. Against all odds, I became a fan which is a difficult achievement for any band these days given how many bands I’ve heard in my misspent days as a rock critic and since as a listener. So, rock on God of Thunder. Long live Thor!

REASONS TO GO: Thor is an engaging and charismatic personality. A look behind the trailer park of rock and roll.
REASONS TO STAY: Heavy metal isn’t for everyone.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During his bodybuilding days, Thor once finished as runner-up in a bodybuilding contest to Lou Ferrigno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul Williams: Still Alive
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cartel Land

Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!