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!

Los Ultimos Frikis


Heavy metal thunder.

(2019) Music Documentary (Cinema Tropical) Diony Arce, Hansel Arrocha Sala, Eduardo Longa, Ivan Vera Munoz, Yamil Arias, Alberto Munoz, Dario Arce. Directed by Nicholas Brennan

When thinking about where great heavy metal originates, the first place that would come to most people’s mind would not be Cuba. Yet Zeus, an iconic band in their home country, has been (head) banging away for thirty years in an atmosphere not always favorable to rockers. Early in their career, the band was often hassled by police and frontman Diony Arce spent six years in jail for unspecified violations. Rock and roll was considered a capitalist tool and was effectively illegal in Cuba.

Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan spent ten years in Cuba documenting the band as they are affected by the tides of political trends; eventually the Cuban government relented and allowed the band to play at a Havana venue called Maxim Rock once a month; for their 25th anniversary the group was even allowed to tour the island (which makes up the bulk of material in the documentary.

The band members are individually interviewed with Diony coming off as introspective and a little less egotistical than his American counterparts. Lead guitarist Hansel Arrocha Sala is the musical force in the band and his dedication to his music is obvious. Drummer Eduardo Longa is candid about his love for drumming, but also about his drug and alcohol problems (apparently that is a rock and roll universal). Guitarist Ivan Vera Munoz is the young buck, happy to be a part of the band and bassist Yamil Arias rounds out the band.

It is notable that the band comes off looking and sounding like their counterparts anywhere else in the world. While Zeus does sing obliquely about political topics, they have to tread a very careful line lest the hard-fought government approval they enjoyed suddenly dry up; Diony speaks of the band having to essentially reflect Cuban revolutionary ideals in order to exist, even though the band often protests what they see are deficiencies in the Cuban government.

The tides of political change do effect the band; the death of Fidel leads to the relaxing of restrictions, allowing the band to play “officially” in Havana and occasionally outside of the capital. It even allows them to embark on the anniversary tour. Obama’s movement to normalize relations with Cuba further improves things for the band, although Trump’s reversal of that policy leads to a more restrictive policy towards American musical idioms. Currently in favor is the reggaeton form which the band members individually detest; additionally, rock bands are often assaulted by reggaeton fans who look with equal disdain on rock music.

When the Maxim Rock venue suffers roof damage, Zeus is left without a place to play and go more than a year without performing. This creates a good deal of despair within the band, who begin to question their future. Diony says flat out “the (government) made a fool of me,” referring to the years that the band compromised their message in order to be allowed to play.

However, the very short (73 minutes) documentary ends on a hopeful note and that should leave the audience exiting the theater on a bit of a high. I’m not a particular metal fan but their music sounds pretty strong. In a lot of ways, they are very much like a metal band anywhere else in the world; mugging for the camera, banging their heads in time to the music, enjoying the human demolition derby of the mosh pit, but they are unmistakably Cubano.

There is some lovely cinematography and some of the landscapes of the hinterlands as well as the urban cityscapes of Havana do show off the uniqueness of the country; one sees the Colonial-style architecture of Havana with the classic cars rolling around and one can only say “Ah, Cuba!” The film isn’t particularly hagiographic towards the government of Cuba but they aren’t necessarily hostile to it either. I would have liked a little more context in the movie; although we are told that Zeus is iconic  and essentially the godfathers of the Cuban metal scene, we never get an idea of how extensive the scene is. We also don’t get much of an idea of how their music is recorded and distributed. One wonders if it can be downloaded here.

The movie was going to be screened this very evening at the Miami Film Festival but sadly coronavirus fears have led to the remainder of the Festival being canceled. Hopefully the film will be screened in some way in Miami; there will likely be a fairly strong audience there for it.

The tittle translates roughly to “The Last Freaks” and it doesn’t quite convey what the term Freaks means in Cuban culture; it generally refers to long-haired rockers and is not quite affectionate; think how the term “Hippies” makes you react and you’ll have the general idea. Rock and roll was never a respected form of music in Cuba and it is on the decline there as we speak. Still, the movie is a fascinating look at Cuba which in many ways remains as mysterious to us Americans as Antarctica is. Maybe it’s time that changed.

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to make Zeus look like a typical heavy metal band while not shying away from their differences in circumstance. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little sparse on context.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originated as a short film, Hard Rock Havana, which Brennan turned into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
White Lies

Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape