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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Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

The Public Image is Rotten


John Lydon considers his kitchen.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds, John Rambo Stevens, Alan Dias, Bill Laswell, Don Letts, Pete Jones, Bruce Smith, Thurston Moore, Moby, Adam Horovitz, Big Youth, Flea, Nick Launay, Scott Firth, Keith Levene, Jebin Bruni, Ginger Baker, Andrew Perry, Michael Alago, Ian Mackaye, John Waters, Vivien Goldman. Directed by Tabbert Filler

 

At first glance, doing a documentary on his post-punk project Public Image, Ltd. (or more popularly known as PiL) doesn’t seem to be something John Lydon would be terribly comfortable. Music documentaries by their nature tend to look back; Lydon has always been more interested in what lies ahead rather than what lies behind. However, Lydon has turned 60 and when people get to be more reflective at that age.

For those who don’t know, Lydon was one of the founding members of the Sex Pistols, the band credited with igniting the punk revolution which led to a fertile period in which musicians explored new forms of pop and rock and created music that broke all the rules, then continued on breaking those rules again. The Sex Pistols imploded before much of that happened amid much acrimony; Lydon was famously sued by band manager and control freak Malcolm McLaren who prevented Lydon from using his stage name of Johnny Rotten; the memory still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth although when McLaren passed away in 2010 Lydon paid tribute to the impresario.

Nearly broke and without a means of making a living, Lydon assembled a new band that eventually was named after a book by Muriel Spark with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon’s former schoolmate Jah Wobble and Canadian drummer Jim Walker. The group released several albums and eventually fell victim to egos and contentious personalities. But that wouldn’t be the end of PiL.

Public Image Ltd. Has been in existence for 40 years now and has consistently pushed the boundaries of expectation, choosing to explore and invent rather than repeat. While they’ve only released ten studio albums in that period, albums like Metal Box and Happy? Have influenced generations of musicians, including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Moby and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who was once offered a position in the band but turned it down to remain with his old band), all of whom are interviewed here.

Lydon is a fascinating subject. He is known for his candor and occasionally for genuine introspection. He has a puckish sense of humor (he spends much of the film interview sequences in his pajamas, sitting at a breakfast bar in his kitchen, reheating his coffee in the stove. He is self-deprecating from time to time – he doesn’t take fame very seriously – but when it comes to the music his demeanor is all business. He also keeps his private life as private as possible. His wife Nora doesn’t appear on camera and Lydon doesn’t really discuss how he and his wife have raised her granddaughters (Nora’s daughter is the late Slits lead singer Ari Up) although he does remark that having the kids around has changed him.

Most of the film revolves around the band and Lydon is generally complimentary to former bandmates, although there are exceptions. Of Wobble he said “He contributed a lot but ultimately he took more than he gave,” referring to Wobble’s middle finger exit to the band. Filler at least gives equal time to some of the musicians whom Lydon has issues with. Lydon is a fine storyteller and many of his bandmates – particularly Atkins – are also fine storytellers as well.

Fans of the band – which I was not one of – will appreciate the concert footage of the group, including their notorious Ritz show in New York in which the band chose to play behind a theater screen leading to a near-riot which Lydon gleefully claims is maybe their best live show ever. I have to admit however hearing Lydon talk about the uncompromising nature of the band and their need to continually reinvent themselves made a fan out of me and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

If I have any beef with the movie is that we don’t get as much on what motivates some of the stylistic changes that the band went through. I think part of it is that Lydon insists on bringing in musicians who are inventive but also gifted players like Levene, the late John McGeoch, Alan Dias and even Jah Wobble. Still, this may be one of the best music documentaries ever made. Even if you’re not a particular fan of PiL you should still see this; you may change your mind as I did.

The film is currently playing in New York City but will be playing all over the country in the coming months. Orlando residents can see the movie in November as part of the Enzian’s Music Monday series. Tickets for that show are on sale now.

REASONS TO GO: The band’s story is truly compelling. Lydon is an engaging raconteur. The concert footage is wonderful. Interviewing Lydon in his pajamas at his breakfast bar in his kitchen is a stroke of genius.
REASONS TO STAY: We get little sense of the things that influence Lydon in his creative process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Filler’s first feature film as a director. He has worked as a cinematographer on other films including Sammy Gate and The Activist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: 
MDMA

Songwriter


Songs are weird things says Ed Sheeran.

(2018) Music Documentary (Apple Music/Abramorama) Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Julia Michaels, Johnny McDaid, Matthew Sheeran, Fuse Odg, Foy Vance, Ryan Tedder, Murray Cummings, Amy Wadge. Directed by Murray Cummings

 

Some movies are meant to appeal to niche audiences. This particular documentary is going to appeal to Ed Sheeran fans, for example; it isn’t likely to win any new ones and how you receive the film is going to entirely depend on how you receive his music.

Me, I blow hot and cold on Ed Sheeran. He has written some beautiful, amazing songs. He has also written some cliché pop songs that sound like they came off an assembly line. It’s okay – nobody is ever going to write songs in which every single one appeal to you. That just isn’t possible. However, I suppose that dichotomy of admiration has colored my perception enough to make this a mixed review.

The movie takes place during Sheeran’s 2016 hiatus. He had just finished touring off his second album Multiply and was preparing to record his third album Divide. Cummings shoots this entirely on hand-held cameras giving a fly-on-the-wall immediacy but strangely it lacks intimacy. It feels like everyone there is playing to the camera and nobody is being themselves. We rarely get any conversations with any depth to them during the course of the film, which is not a good thing.

That would be all right if there was something interesting going on onscreen but I’m afraid there really isn’t. The songwriting process seems to be Sheeran and various collaborators noodling about on guitars, keyboards or to a computer-generated beat and coming up with snippets of lyrics and couplets of songs. There does seem to be a process of building each song like a child with a LEGO set but oddly Sheeran never comments on the process and even more stupefying is that Cummings never asks him.

This isn’t a Dylanesque songwriter sitting down at a piano or with a guitar and letting inspiration come; Sheeran has collaborators (as many as nine) on each song which I suppose can generate some synchronicity but to be honest, a lot of the songs lack a human kind of spark. Personally I would love to see Sheeran lock himself in a room and let his heart do the writing but given that he proclaims near the end of the film “Anyone who doesn’t want to be bigger than Adele is in the wrong business,” which leads me to retort that anyone who doesn’t want to write songs that illuminate, or touch the heart of the listener is in the wrong business as well.

Keep in mind that Sheeran is a young man who achieved extraordinary success at a young age and perhaps his priorities are skewed because of it. He seems an affable young man with an easy grin and there are at least two songs on the album that I thought were incredible but most of the others were to put it bluntly sounded alike. The problem with modern music is that too many artists rely on formulas to create hits rather than revealing something of themselves. Formulas are easy; insights are hard and the latter are almost non-existent here.

Still, some of the musical sequences are lovely (particularly a heartwarming moment when he records at Abbey Road) and some are just goofy, most of that supplied by producer/songwriter/partner-in-crime Benny Blanco whose fear of flying causes him to take a transatlantic cruise ship. Sheeran tags along and the men turn one of the larger suites into a recording studio for the voyage which sounds better on paper than it does on film. This is not a great documentary but it’s an adequate one. Maybe that’s the best we could have expected.

REASONS TO GO: Sheeran fans are going to adore this.
REASONS TO STAY: I didn’t really find any insight into the songwriting process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cummings is Sheeran’s cousin; the two have been close friends since childhood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick Cave: One More Time With Feeling
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Minding the Gap

40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie


Old hippies just play on.

(2017) Music Documentary (Paladin) Lee Aronsohn, George “Tode” Cahill, Lynn “Flatbush” Poyer, Kevin “CW” Millburn, Will “Wilbur” Luckey, Rob “Poonah” Galloway, Chris “Cemeto” Doyle, Bill “Das” Makepeace, Greg “Sloth” Sparre, Chris “Spoons” Daniel, Tamara Lester, Chuck Morris, Sam Bush, Julie Luckey, Steve “Spike” Clark, Olivia “Speedy” Luckey, Mary Jane Makepeace, Bill Payne, Scarlett Rivers. Directed by Lee Aronsohn

 

There is a time in our lives which we inevitably link with certain musical styles and sounds. It might be the psychedelic noise of the 60s, the arena rock of the 70s, the new wave of the 80s, the grunge of the 90s or…well, you get the idea. We identify with the music and the era.

In Boulder, Colorado in the early to mid-70s, particularly around the University of Colorado campus, the sound was heavily folk influenced with a kind of hippie aesthetic. Most symbolic of these bands was a group called Magic Music, who had enough facial hair to make a Muslim smile in satisfaction and an affinity for flannel shirts which would make the grunge generation scratch their heads and say “I thought that was our thing.”

Spoiler alert: the band never made it big, despite being hugely popular in Colorado and coming close on several occasions. Their unwillingness to bend on artistic matters as well as some self-torpedoing due to drugs, attitude or a distinct lack of business sense kept them from going to the next step. They broke up in 1975 with no records to their name.

One of their biggest fans was TV producer/writer/creator Lee Aronsohn who was attending CU as a sex and drugs major. He went on to success in his field but over the years the music he heard as a young man stayed in his head. He wondered what happened to the band that so inspired him in his youth. Only one of them remained in the Boulder era; Chris Daniels who continued to play music there with a new band. Through him, Aronsohn was put in contact with the remaining members of the band (Lynn Poyer tragically passed away in 2011) and soon a new idea germinated; to get the band to reunite onstage, playing a one night stand at the 800 seat Boulder Theater. To everyone’s surprise, the show sold out.

These are mostly interviews with the band members, former managers, girlfriends, wives, exes and fans. There isn’t any video footage of the band actually playing extant but there are quite a few still photos around and to Aronsohn’s delight some unreleased demos of the band in their heyday were found and used on the soundtrack. The demos accompany the stills, several of which have been animated into motion. That was a pretty nifty effect but as the story moves from the band’s past to the band’s present, those sorts of animations disappear from the film and I for one missed them.

The band utilized some sweet harmonies (think America and Pure Prairie League) with some fairly standard but lovely folk rock (along the lines of Buffalo Springfield and James Taylor). The music is extremely dated largely due to the lyrics which were of the tree-hugging variety (the band at one time lived in school buses in the Rocky Mountain wilderness) with a generous helping of hippie “love is everything” type sweetness.  Maybe a better secondary title for the film would be Smell the Patchouli!!

Which reminds me: why do non-fiction book authors and documentary filmmakers find it necessary to title their works with unnecessary and often unwieldy secondary titles? Every time I see a colon in a title I feel a sense of rage. Do these authors and filmmakers think that this kind of titling makes their work sound more academic? Knock it off, y’all. It just makes you sound pretentious.

Mini-rant aside, the filmmaking is pretty solid here. Yes, there are plenty of talking heads but for the most part the band members are charming and sweet-natured. While there were some rifts within the band, for the most part a lot of water has gone under the bridge; after all, there were more than forty years between live concert appearances. 40 years an bring an awful lot of perspective even to the most angry and bitter of feelings.

This is very much a niche film. Most people outside of Colorado and not of a certain age group will have never heard of the band and even those that do, not all of them are going to be all that interested in taking a stroll down memory lane. Still, the band’s reunion does have a pretty good emotional punch and if seeing retired hippie chicks undulating in time to the music is your thing, then there’s reason enough to go catch this in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: The reunion scenes are pretty sweet. Early on I like what Aronsohn did with the motion stills.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really intended for a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aronsohn has been responsible for such hit TV shows as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Andre the Giant

Straight Into a Storm


This is truly a band of gentlemen.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John McCauley, Ian O’Neil, Chris Ryan, Dennis Ryan, Robbie Crowell, Shaylyn McCauley, Joe Lusi, Chris Paddock, Paul Marandola, Diego Perez, Brendan Massei, Zeke Hutchins, John Chavez, Justin Collins, Adam Landry, Taylor Goldsmith Dawes, Jana Hunter. Directed by William Miller

 

Deer Tick is far from a household name – are there any rock and roll household names anymore that didn’t arrive via some TV reality competition show a la American Idol or America’s Got Talent? The truth that rock and roll has become a niche genre in pop music; the bands that make it generally have some sort of hip-hop pedigree but I digress somewhat.

The indie rock band Deer Tick has pushed on through what are fairly long odds to go from, as lead singer/songwriter John McCauley proclaims, “being an indie band to being a cult band” and yes, there is a distinction. We see plenty of performance footage from house parties in their native Providence to the film’s nadir, a seven day residency at the 600-seat Brooklyn Bowl to simultaneously celebrate the band’s tenth anniversary and the incoming New Year (the residency culminated with a New Year’s party in 2014). That their most recent footage is three years old robs the film of any immediacy it might have had but then, I don’t think anyone is clamoring for a Deer Tick biography.

And yet we got one and I must admit that it is pretty thorough as these things go. McCauley is a reasonably competent raconteur and his band mates contribute some fairly interesting stories about the life of a touring band in the age of Spotify. When you make a documentary about a cult band, the question becomes “will the movie make any new fans for the band?” The answer is likely not; the performance footage tends to be choppy and often shot on cell phones. You get a sense of some of the songs (and Dennis Ryan explains in depth why he needed to write a song about John Wayne Gacy) but for the most part we just hear snippets. The performances were often characterized by heavy drinking and drugging which makes them far more interesting if you’re present and also drinking and drugging. I will plead guilty to loving the Beat Farmers but being shitfaced with the band will do that for you.

And there’s the rub. The things that make fans rabid about a band is not so much a devotion to their music although that’s where it begins. No, the connection comes through interaction, a feeling of being part of the band which getting drunk with them will kind of do. When you’re as plastered as the band is, you become a part of the show.

Some time is spent on McCauley’s problems with drugs and how marriage and fatherhood have caused him to cut way back on his psychedelic consumption (although not completely eliminated it). There’s also some morbid talk about him joining the so-called 27 Club, the group of artists (mainly rock musicians) whose only qualification for membership is dying at age 27. McCauley was eager to join the club along with the likes of Janis Jopllin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. For anyone who watched the old VH-1 documentary series Behind the Music this will be familiar turf.

I found myself, not being a fan of the band or at least a devoted one, checking my watch a little bit as the film approached its end. There’s no doubt that this is a movie for the fans and the rabid ones at that. If you’re not a fan of the band or unfamiliar with their music you’re way better off checking out some of their recordings on Spotify if you’re interested in really checking them out. I would recommend the War Elephant album as a starting point and in particular “Art is Real (City of Sin)” if you want to fall in love – and who doesn’t want to fall in love with a band? It’s wonderful to make a discovery that only you and a select few are aware of. That makes the emotional connection even stronger. Like all romances though, one must take some caution though; not everyone will understand your love. That doesn’t matter so much though – love is love, even when it is given to a band. At least you’ll always have the music.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is generally the best part.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long and detailed, the film will likely only appeal to big fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shut Up and Play the Hits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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Tattoo Girls