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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Love, Gilda


Gilda and Gene as a couple were amazingly cute.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Michael F. Radner, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shaffer, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Rosie Shuster, Cecily Strong, Andrew Alexander, Janis Hirsch, Anne Beatts. Directed by Lisa DaPolito

 

It’s not taking a controversial stance by declaring that Gilda Radner was one of the greatest comedians of her era and one of the greatest ever. Although she passed away at a too-young 43 in 1989, her best work on Saturday Night Live still holds up even now, 40 years later.

It’s hard to believe but for most people under 30 she’s been gone their entire lifetime. Fortunately there’s a documentary that will not only play on the nostalgic chords of baby boomers and others who are middle aged, it may introduce her to a whole new generation that didn’t get to be captivated by her amazing smile, who didn’t get to enjoy her compelling characters or laugh at her gentle humor.

The documentary is mostly told in Radner’s own words as we hear excerpts of her audio recordings that she used while writing her autobiography It’s Always Something which would be published two weeks after her death. She was also an insatiable diarist and we get to hear some of her most intimate thoughts read by modern comedians (and SNL alumni themselves) like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler.

We also get to see plenty of home movies of her youth, backstage footage from her debut performance in Godspell in Toronto as well as from her one-woman Broadway show after her stint on SNL came to an end (but strangely, very little backstage or rehearsal footage from SNL itself). There are also some home movies from her brief but fulfilling marriage to Gene Wilder, some of it taken during cancer treatments during the last years of her life. Even though she remained optimistic despite the advanced stages of her ovarian cancer when it was detected, there came a point when she knew she wasn’t going to survive and she confessed as much to some of her closest friends. She faced the end with grace and humor as you might expect.

Radner was never a radical feminist but she did a lot of trailblazing for women particularly in the field of comedy which was then definitely a boys club (and is still so to a lesser but still profound effect today). Female comics revere her and rightfully so for that reason. She made inroads not by demonstrating but by doing; she wasn’t the sort to get in anyone’s face and scream. She knew there was discrimination against women but in her own non-confrontational way she fought against it. It didn’t hurt that nobody could deny she wasn’t as hysterically funny as her male counterparts, maybe more so in a lot of cases.

Given the amount of personal information and observations that the filmmakers were privy to, some aspects of her life seem to have little flesh on them when displayed here. We get that she spent most of her life looking for true love and being devastated when her latest boyfriend or husband (Wilder was her third marriage) didn’t work out. She wanted to be adored, but was intrinsically shy and preferred privacy even as she loved being in front of people, perhaps less than being with people. At least, that’s what I can glean from what is shown here; I may be way off-base. That’s the problem with documentary movies; the filmmaker has an hour and a half to dig into a life so often we are just left with the highlights and not so much with the blanks being filled in. I really wanted DaPolito to spend more time on her relationship with Wilder but we really didn’t get much more than we could glean from reading contemporary accounts in People magazine.

Radner’s fans will likely love the stroll down memory lane but be disappointed by the insight of which there could have been a lot more. I also found it surprising that the only members of the original cast to appear in the documentary were Newman and Chase; Aykroyd, Curtin and Morris are not to be seen nor is Bill Murray and his brother Brian (both of whom dated Radner at separate times back in the day) from the second season. That’s a shame to me and I don’t know why the missing members declined to appear (if indeed they did) or why DaPolito failed to ask them (if she didn’t).

Still, it is a worthy tribute to one of the most iconic performers of her era, one whose influence still resonates in the comedy business today. Even if it isn’t entirely satisfying from one hoping to gain more insight into what made her tick, I think for most people this is another – or maybe a first – opportunity to love Gilda.

REASONS TO GO: The excerpts from classic SNL sketches still hold up well. The journal entries are both poignant and illuminating.
REASONS TO STAY: The section on her relationship with Gene Wilder could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radner based her Emily Litella character on her nanny whom she considered her second mom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Painless

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men