Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away


Phil Lynott (foreground) and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy get down to it.

(2021) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Phil Lynott, Gale Claydon, Scott Gorham, Eric Bell, Adam Clayton, Huey Lewis, James Hetfield, Suzi Quatro, Midge Ure, Peter Lynott, Carl Shaaban, Niall Stokes, Caroline Taraskevics, Sarah Lynott, Jerome Rimson, Darren Wharton, Brush Shiels, Philomena Lynott, John Kelly, Hugh Feighery, Gus Curtis, Cathleen Howard-Lynott, Diane Wagg, Rebecca Hickey. Directed by Emer Reynolds

 

As a crusty old rock critic who grew up in the 70s and listened to classic rock throughout high school. I am more than familiar with Thin Lizzy and their captivating frontman Phil Lynott. Most Americans who are younger than I probably only know their seminal Jailbreak album and their iconic hit “The Boys are Back in Town.”

But Lizzy was more than that album and more than that song, and for us Yanks who are less familiar with their output than we should be, this film is a very good way to get introduced to the band and the man. Lynott was a mixed race young man born in England’s Midlands to a single mom (an absolute scandal in the Fifties) who saw the wisdom of shipping him off to Dublin to be raised by his maternal grandparents (although he remained close to his mum Philomena throughout his life). He put new meaning to the term “Black Irish,” as he was something of a rarity back in those days and while he did encounter racism growing up, that seemed to be less of a thing once he emerged as a rock star, although black men weren’t a big part of classic rock with the exception of Jimi Hendrix and a few others. But Lynott wasn’t one to care about expectations.

He merged Irish legends with American idioms, blending street rats and mythic warriors into a seamless but completely unique mixture. Lizzy also utilized twin lead guitarists, making for a graceful but thunderous sound that recalled the power of bands like the Allman Brothers but with a distinctly Celtic flair. Lynott played bass which he learned in order to start his own band, and became quite good at it; he was certainly a charismatic frontman who although generally shy offstage, wasn’t above utilizing a little Irish charm at concerts “I hear a lot of ladies here have a little Irish in them.” Loud roar. “Would you like a little more?” Louder roar.

For the most part, this is a typical rock doc that thoroughly dives into the music of Lizzy albeit with a minimum of analysis; there are an awful lot of talking heads, most of whom are effusive in their praise of Lynott as a nice guy and a devoted family man. Both of his daughters appear here, as well as his ex-wife (they divorced a few years before Lynott passed away) and a former girlfriend. So do bandmates Eric Ball (the original guitarist), Midge Ure (who briefly replaced Gary Moore as second guitarist before leaving to front his own band, Ultravox) and Californian Scott Gorham who is entertaining in his own right, but when discussing his friend’s passing gets uncharacteristically reflective.

We also hear from journalists and fellow rockers like U2’s Adam Clayton, Metallica’s James Hetfield, Huey Lewis and Suzi Quatro, as well as those who knew him in Dublin like his Uncle Peter Lynott and friend Gus Curtis. We do get a sense of who he was; his intense Irish pride (he often corrected journalists who got his heritage wrong, or details about Ireland wrong), his devotion to his daughters (he wrote each of them a song dedicated to them), and his fascination with things American (he grew up on American television, and was eager to break through in the American market, but had the worst luck with it – the tour for Jailbreak had to be cut short because of illness, which would be a critical opportunity lost).

There are a few oddities though; often throughout the film Reynolds uses water as a metaphor to an almost head-clubbing point. While mentioning that Lynott had drug “problems,” she doesn’t bring up that he was actually addicted to heroin, which led to the septicemia that would claim his life at age 36 in 1986. But let’s face it; the band is almost criminally underrepresented on American radio, other than three or four songs mostly off of a single album. They actually released 12 albums that contained a mixture of balls-out rockers and introspective power ballads. Lynott was one of the best songwriters in classic rock and much of his music remains undiscovered by American audiences. However, a viewing of this movie is likely to motivate people to explore his other albums. While devoted fans of the group and of Lynott may find nothing here that is new, casual fans will definitely get their money’s worth.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative packed with some terrific music.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too cutesy with cutaway shots.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual references and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A life-size statue of Lynott was erected on Harry Street near Grafton Street in Dublin in 2005. Many electrical junction boxes in Dublin have been painted with Lynott’s likeness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
An Intrusion

Omara


The vitality and joy of Omara’s performance still lights up the stage after all these years.

(2021) Music Documentary (Fourth Agreement) Omara Portuondo, Rolando Luna, Ariel Portuondo, Lester Hamlet, Santiao Alfonso, Arturo O’Farrill, Telemary Diaz, Satomi, Diego El Cigola, Rossio Jiménez Blanco, Yoshiro Hiroishi, Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Chucho Valdés, Aymée Nuviola, Roberto Fonseca, Pura Obrega. Directed by Hugo Perez

The undisputed grand dame of Cuban music is Omara Portuondo. She came to public notice back in the pre-Revolution days as part of the Cuarteto d’Alda along with her sister Haydee; they were mainstays at world-famous venues like the Tropicana and the Copacabana in Havana. But the revolution came and with it many thousands of Cubanos left the country, including Haydee who moved to Miami while Omara remained in her beloved Cuba. The two sisters have scarcely spoken since.

She is best-known here as a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club organized of veteran Cuban musicians by Ry Cooder, whose recording and concerts were filmed by Wim Wenders and led to Cuban music being discovered in this country in a big way. However in Cuba, Omara is clearly revered (and rightfully so) as a legend and a national treasure. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (and rightfully so) because of the emotional resonance of her voice; listening to her sing doesn’t just appeal to the ears but to the heart as well.

She is the child of an interracial marriage, something absolutely unheard-of back in the 1920s when her parents were first married (her white mother was disowned by her family for marrying an Afro-Cuban man), and long-time friends describe that she was the target of abuse because of it, although that is obviously no longer the case. Her voice is both seductive and sweet, caressing pop and folk songs from her native land with equal fervor. And for a 90-year-old woman, her voice is astonishingly pure; as people age their voices tend to get rougher but she has managed to avoid this. When asked her secret, she plays it coy but I’m certain there’s some sort of miracle involved.

Her story isn’t well-known here nor is her music, two compelling reasons to see this documentary. Being of Cuban descent, I do lament the continued embargo that is still in place and has accomplished exactly nothing; Zero. Zip. Nada. It has robbed America of generations of beautiful music, great baseball players and of enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has split families and robbed Cuba of the energy and drive that has been transferred to the U.S. by those who came over. It is long past time for the embargo to go away and for us to stop being idiots about communism. Cuba poses no threat to us. I’m no fan of the Castro regime, but both Cuba and the United States would benefit from the end of these unnecessary restrictions. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay; see this documentary anyay and just enjoy the wonderful music of a consummate artist.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is lilting and seductive. A lovely introduction to an artist who deserves more recognition in the United States.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling may confuse some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Omara has been managed by her son for nearly forty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Children of the Enemy

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 Velvet Underground


New York cool, circa 1966.

(2021) Music Documentary (AppleTV Plus) John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison, Doug Yule, Mary Woronov, Barbara Walters, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Jonas Mekas, Billy Name, Jonathan Richman, Jackson Browne, Martha Morrison, Merrill Reed Weiner, Joseph Freeman, Allen Hyman, Henry Flynt, Terry Philips, Marian Zazeela, Shelley Corwin, Amy Taubin. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

Some bands make an impact because of their massive popularity; others because of some element of their style which would go on to become influential of other bands that came after. Still others are very much a product of their time and place.

The Velvet Underground fits the latter two categories. They were born in the early Sixties when wanna-be rock star Lou Reed met Welsh avant garde enthusiast John Cale, who had moved to New York to work with La Monte Young who had perfected the art of the long, sustained drone. They hooked up with guitarist Sterling Morrison, whom Reed knew from his time at Syracuse University. Finally, Maureen “Moe” Tucker finished the group on drums.

Their music was for its time way out of the norm. Naturally, artistic sorts like Andy Warhol drifted into their sphere. The band became a regular at the Factory, Warhol’s art space. Warhol became their de facto manager and at his urging, the group added German model Nico to front the band along with Reed. She participated on the first album, the one with the banana on the cover, drawn by Warhol himself. Even with the star power behind them, the band never sold a lot of records while they were around. Tensions would escalate between Reed and Cale until Reed essentially fired him from the band. Doug Yule was brought aboard and when Reed himself left the band, would valiantly soldier on until he, too, eventually abandoned the project.

Director Todd Haynes wasn’t interested in creating a standard rock documentary. There are talking heads here, but for most of the film they are more disembodied voices. Some of the interviews are actually pretty wonderful (Richman, Tucker – one of the two surviving Velvets) although some are a little too self-promoting, but I don’t think that this was necessarily about paying tribute to the band.

Haynes, instead, wanted the viewers to get a sense of the band’s era, and of the New York art scene that sprouted them. He wanted the audience to hear the band as if they were hearing them for the first time in that place and time. In this he was unsuccessful, in my opinion.

Haynes has the Factory to fall back on, and the hours and hours of footage shot at that collective. He often has it playing in the background during interview sessions. We see some performance footage from the band, but not a lot. In fact, we don’t even hear the band’s music until we’re 50 minutes in to the nearly two-hour movie. There are an awful lot of cinematic non-sequiturs – commercials and television footage meant to show how America was portraying itself in the media as a consumer’s paradise. Some of the footage is wonderful, to be sure, but it comes off as condescending and pompous and not very useful to the task at hand.

I’ve always found Haynes’ work to be a little too pretentious for my tastes, but I know a lot of people whom I respect who think he’s the bees knees. Fair enough. Still, if you’re wanting to find out about the Velvet Underground, your best bet is always to actually listen to their music – it’s readily available on Spotify, Amazon Music and other sources. However, if you are hoping to get more educated about the band by watching this movie, I don’t think it’s likely. But you’ll get an education about Warhol and the Factory, though.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too much cinematic excess. Less about the band’s actual music and more about the place and time they existed in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality, nudity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Velvet Underground got their name from a book about deviant sex.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews; Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enter the Void
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Becoming Cousteau

The Jesus Music


For some, music is a means of expressing their faith.

(2021) Music Documentary (Lionsgate) Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Toby Mac, Kirk Franklin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael Sweet, Phil Keaggy, Eddie DeGarmo, Glenn Kaiser, Tommy Coomes, Chuck Girard, Greg Laurie, John Styll, Matthew Ward, Mike Norman, Joel Smallbone, John Cooper, Chris Tomlin, Lauren Daigle, Jennifer Cooke, Phil Joel, Michael Tait, Natalie Grant. Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin

 

Like it or not, evangelical Christianity is a part of American culture. In the Seventies there was a massive return to Christianity by baby boomers disenchanted with the strife of the Sixties and with the state of the world and American morality in general. Even in the counterculture, many hippies found themselves feeling that free love, drugs and some of the philosophies of different world religions didn’t bring them the peace they sought.

Some of the hippies congregated at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California – one of the few churches that welcomed long haired freaky people (who need not apply for jobs, as the Five Man Electrical Band noted). Some of them began to form bands, as disaffected young people will, but in this case they were forming bands with a Christian message. Groups like Love Song and Second Acts of Apostles began to sprout up, as did the ascendency of Larry Norman, considered by many the father of Christian rock and roll.

This fairly informative documentary chronicles the rise of the multi-billion dollar Contemporary Christian music industry from these humble beginnings. The filmmakers chat with folks like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, who in the Eighties really started the explosion of Christian music into the mainstream, followed by bands like DC Talk in the decade that followed.

For those, like myself, who are not well-versed in the history of the genre, there is a good deal of information here and the movie is chock full of interviews and performance clips by performers like Steven Curtis Chapman, Kirk Franklin, Stryper and the Newsboys. For the most part, the filmmakers steer away from controversy, other than to obliquely address segregation within the Christian music community (“Why (was) there only one Andrae Crouch,” wonders critic John Thompson) as well as the effect of Grant’s 1989 divorce from songwriter Gary Chapman and subsequent marriage to Vince Gill a year later on her career (it essentially brought it to a screeching halt).

In fact, the word “evangelical” is never mentioned in the documentary, which I imagine is done on purpose. The movie oddly doesn’t really address the rise of evangelical political power that coincided with the rise of Contemporary Christian music, nor does it mention how the careers of some performers were destroyed when they came out of the closet. The movie doesn’t seem to want to address the elephant in the room when it discusses the dearth of African-American performers (whose gospel music was certainly a major influence on modern Christian rock and roll) in that there was also a resurgence of white supremacism within the ranks of evangelical Christians that continues to be an issue.

Still, I can’t fault the filmmakers for not making the movie I would rather they have made. They made a movie that is a celebration of a type of music that brought Christianity into mainstream music where it has remained ever since. Certainly, if you’re looking for that type of film, this will fill the bill. But if you’re looking for an unbiased look into some of the issues with Contemporary Christian music, it’s audience and it’s effect on American culture as of 2021, look elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative and meticulously curated.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to address the deeper problems that essentially ended the dominance of Contemporary Christian music.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a bit of drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the earliest supporters of Contemporary Christian music was evangelist Billy Graham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: God’s Angry Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Godavari

Tiny Tim: King For a Day


The life of Tiny Tim wasn’t an easy one.

(2020) Music Documentary (Juno) Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury, Weird Al Yankovic, Justin A. Martell, Susan Khaury-Wellman, Johnny Pineapple, Richard Perry, Wavy Gravy, Bernie Stein, Eddie Rabin, Ron DeBlasio, Bobby Gonzalves, George Schlatter, Jonas Nekas, Artie Butler, Milt Friedwald, Martin Sharp, Harvey Mann, Tulip Stewart. Directed by Johan van Sydow

Tiny Tim exists, for the most part, in the national zeitgeist as an oddity of the 1960s, dismissed as a one-trick pony with his elfin smile, ukulele and falsetto vocals. He would die in 1995, mostly forgotten, playing in restaurants, circuses and middle school auditoriums, a sad figure living on the limelight that had long since faded away.

Stardom is a potent, addicting thing and Tiny Tim, bourn Herbert Butros Khaury, was a junkie. The son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father – an almost unheard-of combination back then and even so still today. His parents really didn’t know what to make of him, and were generally unsupportive of his ambitions and even when he had become a big star, were less than enthusiastic about his career choice.

This documentary, which debuted at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival, features a good deal of archival footage of Tim’s television performances on the Tonight Show, Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and the like. At the height of his fame, he was a national icon who was something of a symbol of the flower power movement but a change in management put his career in the hands of those who would, in the words of his friend Johnny Pineapple, “send him out anywhere if it put a dollar in their pocket.” His career took a nosedive and as quickly as he he became a household name, he declined into obscurity.

The documentary utilizes excerpts from Tim’s diaries (read by Weird Al Yankovic, himself fairly conversant with the fickle finger of fame) which hints at a darkness in the performer’s soul. Apparently a very religious person (he lamented at one point that he felt as “a lost soul in Hell, crying out for help”) with some severe self-image issues as well as a pretty nasty case of depression, he kept his gentle smile and childlike demeanor showing even to the very end. There is also some effective black and white animated sequences.

The overall tone is bittersweet. I don’t know if you could term his life, as Todd Rundgren coined it, “the ever-popular tortured artist effect” but there’s no doubt that his life had more than his share of pain and suffering. If there’s a silver lining here, it does make you re-examine your attitude towards artists who might be outsiders, those whose music might be a bit different. Maybe their music isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but it should be remembered that every artists, regardless of who they are, put themselves out there and that is something to be respected, not ridiculed. I have to admit that my attitude towards Tiny Tim changed after watching this, and so did my attitude towards people like William Hung and others who may be chasing fame, but even if they don’t achieve it for long, should be treated with compassion rather than derision.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly affecting at times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical music doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tiny Tim’s wedding broadcast on The Tonight Show remains the second largest American television audience of all time as of this writing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zappa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

The Go-Go’s


They got the beat.

(2020) Music Documentary (Eagle RockBelinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Margot Olaverra, Ginger Canzoneri, Elissa Bello, Pleasant Gehman, Miles Copeland, Kathleen Hanna, Sting, Terry Hall, Lee Thompson, Lynval Golding, Chris Connelly, Dave Robinson, Paula Jean Brown, Richard Gottehrer, Stuart Copeland, Jann Wenner, Martha Quinn. Directed by Alison Ellwood

 

What the hell is wrong with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? More to the point, why aren’t the Go-Go’s in it?

This is a band that has never truly been taken seriously. Even at the height of their fame, they were written off by critics as a lightweight pop band, conveniently ignoring the fact that they were trailblazers. They didn’t have a Svengali behind them as the Runaways, who have received far more props from the critical community. They achieved their success on their own. Maybe it’s because they flamed out so quickly, but there are bands in the Hall that have had shorter careers than they.

The Go-Go’s emerged from the L.A. punk scene that gave us bands like X, Motels, The Germs, and the Minutemen, among others. Jane Wiedlin, the manic pixie dreamgirl guitarist for the band, talks candidly of her own depression which led to a suicide attempt at 15; she was rescued by a punk scene that empowered her and inspired her to join a band with vocalist Belinda Carlisle.

The nascent group were more enthusiastic than accomplished. Early footage of them shows a band that can barely play their instruments, but even though their music is very different than what it would eventually become, that pop sheen can still clearly be heard. They eventually added guitarist Charlotte Caffey who turned out to be a talented songwriter who gave them their first hit single, “We Got the Beat,” inspired by a viewing of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.

They became better, growing a following. They added a new drummer, Gina Schock, who turned out to be a world-class skin-pounder. And then when original bassist Margot Olaverra, who resisted the band’s shift from pure punk to a more pop-oriented sound, became ill, they recruited former Textones guitarist Kathy Valentine to take her spot. Valentine, who had never played bass before at the time, recalls learning the entire set of her new band in a two-day cocaine-fueled binge.

An early milestone was an invitation to tour England as an opening act for the Specials and Madness, two ska revival bands who the Go-Go’s opened for in L.A. It turned out to be a difficult tour; the Go-Go’s didn’t play ska music and often got booed off the stage, or spat upon by white nationalists who were fans of the ska movement (which is kind of ironic, when you think of it; most of the ska bands at the time were integrated and the music itself was based on music from Jamaica). It did get them attention enough from Stiff Records, the influential English independent label which then released “We Got the Beat” as a single. During the tour, Wiedlin became romantically involved with Specials frontman Terry Hall and the two wrote another song that would become a signature of the band: “Our Lips are Sealed.”

Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed the band to his fledgling IRS Records label who released their debut album, Beauty and the Beat. Jet-propelled by the two singles, it rose to number one on the charts and established the group as a major hitmaker. From there, they got on the rock and roll treadmill of touring, making a new album, touring, rinse, repeat.

Like other bands in the industry, the group was beset by the usual problems; squabbles about royalty payments, drug use (Caffey hid a burgeoning heroin addiction from the band, even as she continued to write the majority of their hits), Even as the Go-Go’s were becoming one of the biggest acts in rock and roll, the seeds of their implosion were planted; they fired their longtime manager Ginger Canzoneri for a more corporate management team, and eventually Wiedlin left the band. They replaced her briefly with Paula Jean Brown, but the chemistry of the band had already been affected. Six months after Wiedlin left the band, the rest of the group called it a day.

Ellwood has assembled a pretty standard rockumentary with plenty of interviews. The band is remarkably candid about their own foibles with the exception of Carlisle who while forthcoming about her own drug habit in the past, doesn’t mention it here and only obliquely refers to the role her own ego played in the schisms that ultimately broke the band apart. Ellwood does a good job of capturing the bond that still exists between the band (as the documentary was being completed, the band recorded their first material together in nearly two decades). She’s less successful at offering context of how the band was affected by their era – and how they affected succeeding eras. Only Bikini Kill’s outspoken Kathleen Hanna really remarks on the influence the band had on female musicians that came afterwards.

It’s hard to understand why this band hasn’t gotten the credit that is due them. Their music was never outwardly political or topical and thus became timeless; they sang about love and lust and loneliness; the things we all relate to. They did it with a relentlessly cheerful beat and irresistible pop hooks. There is skill involved in all of that but the band ended up being marginalized by everyone except their fans.

Nobody really took them seriously back then, a head-scratching attitude that continues to this day. There is the fact that they are all very attractive women and there is a tendency to look at attractive women as incompetents who get by on their looks rather than talent. It could be the mere fact that they are women, but when I think back to the recent documentaries on Joan Jett and Hanna, women whose music was more aggressive than that of the Go-Go’s, and the critical reception to both of those who hailed the subjects of those films as innovators and trailblazers. Well, so were the Go-Go’s but even now I don’t see the same type of acclaim being accorded them. Perhaps a more strident documentary was needed to maybe force people to listen. This band deserves better. They always have.

REASONS TO SEE: Puts the spotlight on a group that never really got its due.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less a standard rock doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Go-Go’s were the first (and to date, only) all-female group to play their own instruments and write their own songs to have a number one album on the Billboard charts.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV,  Fubo, Google Play, Showtime, YouTube.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Reputation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Little Fish

The Changin’ Times of Ike White


Ike White, striking up a 70s rock star pose.

(2019) Music Documentary (Kino Lorber) Ike White, Lana Gutman, Greg Errico, Stevie Wonder, Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Goldstein, Deborah White, Rico Fanning, Daniel Vernon, Monalisa White, Bruce Jackson, Carole Michaela Reynolds, Baron Ontiveros, Alvin Taylor, Angelique Stidhum.  Directed by Daniel Vernon

Some films need to have a detailed description of the plot. Others actually benefit from having the viewer know as little as possible going in. This is one of the latter types of films.

The basics: Ike White was a talented songwriter and musician whose 1976 album Changin’ Times garnered him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and the admiration of Stevie Wonder. But Ike White didn’t have the usual route to a record release; he recorded the album while in prison for the murder of a shopkeeper.

During the course of a convenience store robbery, the 86-year-old store owner was shot by White who claimed that the shooting was an accident. Nonetheless, the 19-year-old Ike was convicted and sent to prison for life. Ike escaped from prison life with a small portable keyboard, a guitar and a harmonica which he played whenever he could. Legend has it that while cleaning the execution chamber, he would take breaks playing his guitar – while sitting in the electric chair (a nice story, but the electric chair was no longer in use by the state of California by the time Ike was incarcerated).

Word got out to producer Jerry Goldstein who arranged for a mobile studio to be driven to the prison, along with a couple of supporting musicians and a trio of female backup singers. Goldstein’s teenage secretary Deborah became so enamored of Ike that she married the guy and had a daughter by him. His music came to the attention of Stevie Wonder, who arranged for a high-priced lawyer for Ike who got his sentence commuted and Ike was a free man after 14 years.

But here is not the happy ending you’d hope for, but perhaps the realistic twist you’d expect. Ike continued to make bad decisions once out of prison, getting involved with drug use. Deborah left him, reconciled, left him again, reconciled again and finally left him for good. Shortly after that, Ike disappeared. That’s where the story gets weird.

Documentary filmmaker went on the hunt for Ike and found him – singing in Las Vegas lounges under an assumed name, married to a frowsy blonde Russian woman (who also doubled as his manager) and surprisingly eager to discuss his convoluted story. And that’s where the story gets really weird.

We get to hear Ike’s story from those close to him, and from Ike himself. He is full of all sorts of stories, but he is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. The more the film unravels, the more untrustworthy he proves to be. The movie heads off into directions you don’t expect it to take, complete with some jaw-dropping revelations and one very massive change in the narrative about halfway through which may leave you wondering what next – and where the movie can possibly go from there. Trust me, it’s not over by a long shot and even when the final credits roll you might be still wondering just what the heck you saw.

Vernon wisely leaves it to the viewer to reach their own conclusions, and not all those conclusions are going to be charitable. White was undoubtedly a superior musician and maybe at one time in his life he might have had the talent to be a difference-maker, although listening to his music later on you might wonder if it was all a con. No, not all of it was but there are plenty of revelations here that may leave you feeling dizzy in a good way. Undoubtedly, he was a chameleon who floated through life, never showing the same face to anyone.

I can’t say that you’ll really get to know Ike White ub any of his other guises by watching this. He remains an enigma to those who knew him best and a 77-minute documentary isn’t going to give you much more than surface impressions. I don’t think you’ll ever meet anyone quite like him, though.

If you’re tired of the typical obscure artist music documentary, this could well be what you’re looking for. It’s not typical of anything and like any great documentary, it doesn’t always lead you to where you expect it to. It might make you sad, it might make you angry, it might even leave you feeling like you’ve glimpsed genius, but it won’t leave you bored.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your usual music documentary. Takes some sharp left turns. Occasionally so surreal you may wonder if it really happened.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a little steam near the end and feels a bit incomplete in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sensuality, drug content and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching for Sugar Man
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Test and the Art of Thinking

Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan


Having a few with the Lion in winter.

(2020) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Shane MacGowan, Johnny Depp, Bono, Nick Cave, Gerry Adams, Maurice MacGowan, Paddy Hill, Therese MacGowan, Bobby Gillespie, Ann Scanlon, Siobhan MacGowan, Paolo Ikonomi, Terry Edwards, Victoria Mary Clarke. Directed by Julien Temple

 

One has to love the Irish. There is no culture on Earth that is so entwined with music; there is no culture on Earth that loves a good time more. Their history and mythology is beautiful, as is the Emerald Isle itself. They have endured famine, occupation and derision and still remain a culture that matters.

Shane MacGowan, best known for being the leader of the Pogues, embodies all of the often-contradictory aspects of Irishness. He is brilliant, a superb songwriter and a wit. He is also temperamental, self-destructive and occasionally curmudgeonly. This documentary, from noted British music documentarian Julien Temple, is not so much a love letter to his life as it is another opportunity for him to launch both middle fingers at those who have oppressed his race.

Through archival footage, brilliantly bizarre animations and interviews (primarily with his father and sister), we get a sense of his boyhood in Tipperary – his love of family and partying (he was smoking and drinking whiskey before he was double digits in age) where he was radicalized into supporting the Irish Republican Army (Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams reminisces with MacGowan about the good ol’ days) which he still believes in to this day (“I only wish I had the f*****g guts to join up”.

We go through his boyhood in great deal, including his brief commitment to a mental institution by his sister while still a teen. When he was released, he fell into the punk scene and inspired by the Sex Pistols, went on to form his own band – the Nipple Erectors. From there, he went on to form the Pogues, whose full name – Pogue Mahone – is Gaelic for “Kiss my ass” – doesn’t occur until an hour into the film. Temple is clearly trying to relate the rise of MacGowan to the time and place, but Jaysus Murray and Joseph!

MacGowan is in very poor condition; his speech is slurred and at times one gets the sense that the years of drinking, smoking and drugs may have affected him mentally as well. He clearly is uninterested in being interviewed for the movie and despite having Adams and celebrity MacGowan pal Johnny Depp (who was also a producer on the film) to coax him into talking doesn’t really work. It is also telling that none of the Pogues agreed to be interviewed for the film and although the end credits profess a certain amount of love and a desire for forgiveness on MacGowan’s part, his bandmates seem to be less inclined to mend fences.

Still, there is no doubt of MacGowan’s brilliance as a songwriter; one need look no further than the Christmas perennial “A Fairytale of New York” (perhaps his best-known song, sung with the late, great Kirsty MacColl) and “Summer in Siam,” which he sings as a duet with Nick Cave here. There is something not so much admirable about seeing MacGowan as a shell of what he was, but seeing the defiance still very much present. Like a lion still in full voice even though pressed on every side by time and trouble, there is nobility in that roar, even if the teeth are gone.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a mythic quality that’s pure Irish. The animations are grand – the music even grander.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nearly an hour into the film and they are still covering his school days.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, underage drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Temple has previously done documented on British bands of the late 70s like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the UK Subs and Madness.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/2020: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2,000 Days on Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Changin’ Times of Ike White

Linda and the Mockingbirds


For some, the border wall is more than just a barrier.

(2020) Music Documentary (Shout!) Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Eugene Rodriguez, James Keach, Lucina Rodriguez, Fabiola Trujillo, Marie-Astrid Do Rodriguez. Directed by James Keach

 

It is no secret that the current President made border security, specifically on our Southern border, a campaign issue, one which has carried over into his administration. The building of the Wall is much more than symbolic, particularly to those who have emigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America to make a better life for their families – just as Irish immigrants did during the potato famine, as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe did during the programs, as Vietnamese immigrants did after the fall of Saigon and as any number of immigrants did from all over the world over the past two and a half centuries.

It is also no secret that Linda Ronstadt was one of the most powerful voices and popular singers of the 70s into the 80s. Of Mexican descent, she remembered fondly singing traditional songs with her family, particularly her beloved grandfather who hailed from a small village in Sonora. After making an album of the music that she so loved as a child, she became aware of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Center (cenzontles is Spanish for mockingbird), founded by guitar virtuoso Eugene Rodriguez, dedicated to teaching youth of the San Francisco Bay Area music and dance forms that are largely dying out in Mexico. He was putting together a tour in Mexico for the kids to study with masters in Mexico and Ronstadt agreed to fund them and added a date to her tour to benefit the center. She has been a patron for them ever since.

As filmmaker James Keach was putting together the documentary of Ronstadt’s life, he found the artist – now unable to sing due to Parkinson’s disease – reluctant to do an interview for her own documentary. She suggested that they do the interview in Mexico, in the village where her grandfather grew up. Keach agreed, but was surprised to find that the reason for the trip wasn’t his film, but rather for the youth of Los Cenzontles to put on a concert for the village in the public square. Along for the ride was longtime Ronstadt friend Jackson Browne, who had been introduced to the cultural center by Ronstadt, and who was inspired to rewrite his song The Dreamer about the experiences of Lucina Rodriguez (one of the two main singers of the vocal group put together by the center).

The movie is about much more than a performance. It is about the modern immigrant experience, about the fear and disquiet many of them feel as they have been demonized by the current administration. Certainly, we are shown the frustration and even rage – but this isn’t an angry film. Rather, it is about the beauty of discovering one’s own culture, of how the music, dance and traditions of our past can help us find out who we are so that we may navigate the future. It’s a powerful message and one delivered over and over again in the film.

Ronstadt does on-camera interviews here, and in some ways they are disarming. She comes off at times like an ordinary Midwestern housewife, a sleeping two-year-old grandniece at her side, but there is also pride in her background and talking about the songs of her culture clearly energizes her. Of her medical condition not one word is spoken, not one word mentioned and if the only hint of its devastating effect on her life is a wistful “I wish I could sing with those kids” as some break into song on the bus ride into Mexico, you would never know she has Parkinson’s unless you already knew – and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t find out unless you read a review like this. Ronstadt has chosen not to become a poster child for her disease and while Michael J. Fox has elected to become a spokesperson for further research into a cure for it, Ronstadt prefers not to go that route, directing her energy into Los Cenzontles instead.

The movie is heartwarming and hopeful and full of amazing music, colorful handmade costumes and lovely dancing. It is a peek into the richness of Mexico’s (and Sonora’s specifically) cultural heritage, a very worthwhile endeavor particularly if your only exposure to it has been the occasional Tijuana Brass album or mariachi night at your local Chevy’s. At just under an hour long, this documentary is a worthwhile investment of your time.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is rich, passionate and warm. A frontline look at the immigrant experience.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find that the film pulls its punches a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some discussion of controversial current events.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronstadt’s 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. history.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Synchronic