Sidemen: Long Road to Glory


It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin, Marc Maron (voice), Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, John Landis, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Margolin, Gary Davis, Ilene Louise Smith, Johnny Winters, Paul Nelson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bonnie Raitt. Directed by Scott D. Rosenbaum

 

Pinetop Perkins. Hubert Sumlin. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. They are three giants in the history of the blues and huge influences on the sound of rock and roll. Sumlin was the guitar genius behind Howlin Wolf while Smith and Perkins played drums and piano for Muddy Waters. They have influenced bluesmen like the late Johnny Winters and Bonnie Raitt as well as rockers like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and the Rolling Stones.

None of those three men have really gotten their due; even in their own genre they were overshadows by the men they backed up. They were true sidemen, and while they wore the label with pride they also felt the injustice of it – referring to the bandleaders they played for, Perkins mused “They got all the money and we got all the scraps.”

This documentary aims to remedy that. Rosenbaum – who in his debut feature film The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll posited a blues all-star band featuring these three giants and later saw life imitate art when the three men created their own band that would eventually win a Grammy – celebrates the life and art of these three sidemen. There’s a good deal of testimonial from Raitt, Winters, the late Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa. Perhaps a little too much; the movie professes a little too much adulation and while the praise is richly deserved, it gets to be a bit much as we hear over and over how great these guys were. We get it; what I really wanted to hear was their story.

When the film is concentrating on the story rather than the talking heads, it really hits its stride. All three of the men are natural storytellers and as you might imagine they have some stories to tell. Smith in particular is a delight to watch with an infectious smile and contagious laugh. If one person stands out from this documentary, it’s Smith..

We get a pretty good history from these guys, from their beginnings as the sons of sharecroppers, to their move to Chicago to find better economic opportunities to their days playing for Wolf and Waters and finally after both Wolf and Waters passed away, their days establishing themselves all over again. Some of the stories have a bit of a name-dropping element to them, as when Perkins recalls the time that Jimi Hendrix unexpectedly showed up at a concert, and others are told with gentle affection, as when Sumlin tells about how Clapton got on the notoriously curmudgeon Wolf’s good side by asking him to show them how “Little Red Rooster” was played, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the song.

There is some lovely archival footage of Wolf and Waters which is worth its weight in gold and the audio clips of the great blues songs these men were part of will absolutely send chills up your spine. There is a bit of an elegiac tone to the film however; the interviews with Winters and Allman took place before the musicians passed away. Also the three blues men in question have all since passed away – within eight months of each other, Perkins less than a month after the three won their Grammy.

Although they are gone, their legend lives on. There is a very real effort underway to get them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, none of whom are currently inducted in and definitely should be. This is a documentary that should have been made. I would have preferred to hear more from the three gentlemen in question and less from the talking heads, but to be fair Smith, Sumlin and Perkins were interviewed during their final tour back in 2010 and little interview footage otherwise exists. That’s the true shame – the stories and memories that the three men had between them are gone with them.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. Smith is absolutely delightful throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: More anecdotes and less adulation would have been welcome. The film over-relies on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins earned his only Grammy at age 97 (along with Smith and Sumlin) for Joined at the Hip which makes him the oldest Grammy recipient ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twenty Feet from Stardom
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liza, Liza, Skies of Grey

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Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

Twenty Feet from Stardom


Sweet harmony personified.

Sweet harmony personified.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander. Directed by Morgan Neville

Florida Film Festival 2013

We all know the stars. Their faces, their voices, their music. We can hum their songs in our sleep. We don’t always get the full components of what goes into that classic music however. We rarely know who the backup singers are.

This documentary aims to rectify that. Focusing mainly on four African-American women, the movie looks at the importance of back-up singers to popular music of the last say, 50 years or so. There’s Darlene Love, for example, who not only sang leads on a lot of classic songs (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” comes to mind) but her voice can be heard on some of Phil Spector’s classic hits – as part of The Blossoms, an early girl group she fronted, her powerful voice decorated some of the classic songs of the ’60s. Still, she’s primarily known as playing Danny Glover’s wife on the Lethal Weapon films.

Merry Clayton, like many of the great backup singers the daughter of a preacher, is perhaps best remembered as the female voice on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” for which she was awakened in the middle of the night to do and sang in pajamas and curlers.  She’s sang for some of the biggest names in music and while her face may not be familiar, I guarantee you’ve heard her voice many times.

Lisa Fisher may have the most amazing voice of them all. While much in demand (she has been the Stones’ touring backup vocalist for more than 20 years) she has for the most part shunned a solo career (although she won a Grammy for her lone solo album). She prefers to sing for the simple joy of singing, preferring to remain in the background rather than pursuing the solo career she more than has the talent to achieve.

Judith Hill famously sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service and is heavily featured in the documentary of the rehearsals for his final tour that never happened due to his untimely death. She writes and performs not only for herself but for other big stars and recently became a contestant on the singing competition The Voice which I would count her a heavy favorite to win it all.

These women and many others like them (and a few men too) may not be well known but they are absolute titans in the industry. The respect that is paid them by the stars who are interviewed is palpable and as is mentioned by Claudia Lennear during the film, most people when they’re singing along to a song are singing what the backup singers are singing.

I will confess to having been a music critic for nearly a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area and like most people – critics included – I kind of took the contributions of these amazing singers for granted. One of the best thing this movie does is break down the importance of the background singers in the song. One stark illustration of this is found when ”Gimme Shelter” is played with the tracks removed one at a time until only Clayton’s vocal track remains. It’s a very simple yet effective reminder of the power of the human voice.

The human connection through music is universal. There are those who feel a particular passion for it and have the talent and the desire to express themselves through their music. Some of them make it and some of them don’t regardless of how good they are – it’s largely a matter of luck and timing. For my money, regardless of the fame and fortune these ladies and others like them have gathered (or lack thereof) they are every one of them stars in my book. If you love rock and roll or hell, any sort of pop music, you owe it to yourself to see this. It will change your outlook on music – in a good way – forever.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and spiritually uplifting. Everything a documentary should be.

REASONS TO STAY: If musical documentaries don’t interest you…

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few swear words and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M records, came up with the idea and title after attending a Leonard Cohen show with his friend Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, Friesen passed away shortly before the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film has appeared at Sundance but won’t see theatrical release until June 14th but frankly, I don’t see critics not falling in love with this early Oscar contender.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Nancy, Please and more from the 2013 Florida Film Festival

White Irish Drinkers


White Irish Drinkers

Nick Thurston is oblivious to Leslie Murphy’s skepticism over the idea that a cemetery is an acceptable location for a first date.

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Nick Thurston, Geoff Wigdor, Leslie Murphy, Stephen Lang, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, Zachary Booth, Robbie Collier Sublett, Michael Drayer, Henry Zebrowski, Ken Jennings, Regan Mizrahi, Anthony Anorim, Jackie Martling, Patricia Hodges. Directed by John Gray

 

We can choose our friends, so the saying goes, but we can’t choose our families. We’re stuck with them to a certain extent. We are also stuck with the place we are raised, and the time we are raised in. These are the things that make us who we are later in life and yet we have little or no control over them. I suppose in that sense we are destined to become who we are.

Brian Leary (Thurston) is a young man living with his parents in Brooklyn in the 1970s. His dad (Lang) is an Irish longshoreman who drinks night after night and often comes home drunk and belligerent. His ma (Allen) has the patience of a saint, can’t cook worth a damn and is a bit of a dim bulb but loves her son with the fierce passion that Irish moms are known for.

His brother Danny (Wigdor) is a petty thief constantly getting into trouble and often incurring the wrath of dear old Dad, who beats him like a drum. Brian is a sensitive soul who has a basement studio that he keeps locked away from his family. There he paints watercolors and has some real talent.

He works for a theater run by Whitey (Riegert) who is almost as decrepit as his rundown building which is slowly going bankrupt but salvation is in sight – Whitey has called in a whole bunch of favors and has gotten the Rolling Stones to play an afterparty concert there. Of course, life being what it is in that time and that place, Danny finds out about the show and decides to rob the theater of the proceeds and is eager to use Brian as an accomplice.

Brian is hesitant; this would break Whitey and might ruin the nascent romance he is kindling with Shauna Friel (Murphy), a young free-spirited Brooklynite who has plans to escape and make something of herself, although those plans are pretty vague. And at the behest of one of his friends, Brian has applied to Carnegie Mellon University to see if he can escape the vortex that is Irish Brooklyn, where his buddies aspire to careers as garbage men and cops.

Gray, who also wrote the movie, obviously has a great affection and understanding of Brooklyn in the time of Disco. I can’t say as I have any connection to the time or place by anything other than having seen it in movies of the time, but from what I understand this movie depicts it pretty accurately. Certainly you get a feel for time and place here which is essential for making the story work.

The acting here isn’t spectacular – you aren’t immediately overwhelmed – but it’s serviceable. Thurston and Wigdor are at the crux of the film and while they don’t amaze, they do everything right. There is a good chemistry between them and their relationship as brothers onscreen is believable. So too Murphy is also solid and her relationship with Thurston is similarly organic.

Riegert and Allen had a pretty sweet onscreen romance in National Lampoon’s Animal House but they don’t share any screen time here but both veterans are solid here, as is Lang who has by now become one of Hollywood’s most reliable screen villains. Here he is more of a presence but in the one scene where he has any sort of dialogue he delivers big time.

This doesn’t possess the kind of nostalgic glow that would make it a “Happy Days” for the 70s, but there is certainly some affection that the filmmakers clearly possess. White Irish Drinkers isn’t always pleasant but it has a goodly amount of heart and a goodly amount of grit in pretty equal amounts, making this a movie that resonates much more clearly than most films of this type do. Sure, the story isn’t going to set the world on fire but sometimes a familiar story told well can be as much if not more satisfying than a story that is innovative.

WHY RENT THIS: Evocative of era and place. Gritty where it needs to be.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might not resonate as much with younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: Basically this is non-stop bad language. There’s also a bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gray previously directed the 2001 remake of Brian’s Song for “The Wonderful World of Disney” and created the hit TV series “The Ghost Whisperer.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31,056 on an unreported production budget; it’s unlikely that the movie turned a box office profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Liberal Arts

Stoned


A Rolling Stone may gather no moss, but sure attracts an entourage

A Rolling Stone may gather no moss, but sure attracts an entourage

(Screen Media) Leo Gregory, Paddy Considine, Ben Whishaw, Monet Mazur, Tuva Novotny, David Morrissey, Amelia Warner, Luke de Woolfson. Directed by Stephen Woolley

Brian Jones (Gregory) was the driving factor in the formation of the Rolling Stones. Flamboyant and excessive, he symbolized the band in the eyes of many but as his drug use escalated and his creative contributions decreased, he also came to symbolize the pitfalls of fame and drug abuse.

The movie begins Sunset Boulevard-like with Jones’ body at the bottom of his pool. The rest of the film is told in flashback fashion, chronicling Jones’ early resistance to authority and his love for the blues, leading him to form a band along with Mick Jagger (de Woolfson) and Keith Richards (Whishaw).

The group eventually gains enormous success which leads to excess. Experimentation with psychedelic drugs, some with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (Mazur) and sexual encounters with both men and women begin to dominate Jones’ life. Bouts of occasional cruelty (he is depicted beating up Pallenberg in a scene where Richards comes to her rescue) lead the band to abandon him in Morocco. The rift between the rest of the Stones grows wider although Jones at times tries to make amends.

He buys a rambling country estate once owned by author A.A. Milne of the Winnie the Pooh series. His manager Tom Keylock (Morrissey) links him up with Frank Thorogood (Considine), a morose World War II veteran, to help renovate the property. As it turns out, Thorogood isn’t much of a contractor, but his true role is to act as a babysitter for Jones, whose increasing unreliability has put a strain on the band. Eventually, Thorogood begins to do drugs with Jones, leading him to become something of a pet for Jones who treats him with casual cruelty, but Thorogood – now addicted to the lifestyle – accepts this behavior with minimal resentment.

Soon, Brian’s antics become too much for the band and they fire their founding father. It’s also suggested that his flamboyant lifestyle was bleeding money from the band – Jones was virtually broke when he died. Jones is also growing tired of Thorogood and gives him the sack as well, leading to a final confrontation at the swimming pool.

This is a fictional account of the life and death of Jones, although there are many incidents based on fact depicted here. The depiction of Jones as a somewhat schizophrenic character who could be kind and gentle one moment, cruel and narcissistic the next jives with contemporary accounts of the guitarist.

British character actor Gregory takes on the role of Jones and does as good a job with it as can be expected. The real-life Jones is a deeply polarizing character to the rock and roll community in general and the Rolling Stones camp in particular. He remains enigmatic even to those who knew him well; capturing someone like that on film is nearly impossible but Gregory takes a noble crack at it. He certainly has the look down pat.

Considine is also good as Thorogood. His performance is more understated than Gregory’s, so when Thorogood snaps it is jarring and surprising, a nice bit of work that adds some spice to the film.

There is a great deal of sex and drugs here but somewhat incongruously very little rock and roll. Although it’s never stated, it seems logical that the surviving Rolling Stones divorced themselves completely from this project and lent little or no co-operation to it. Although the band is central to the film’s story, none of their music is used in the movie and it is a cover band called the Counterfeit Stones that supplies music credited to the band, although it is not music written by the band but blues songs that they covered early in their career.

The filmmakers do a nice job of capturing the mid-60s with the glory of Carnaby Street and the underlying seediness of drug and alcohol abuse. Deliberately under-lighting some of the scenes gives an air of watching period Super-8 footage instead of a modern feature film.

The film asserts that Thorogood on his deathbed in 1994 confessed to murdering Jones, although this has never been confirmed. However, there is enough evidence that has come to light that in August 2009 the police have re-opened the investigation into Jones’ death, which is still as of this writing officially a “death by misadventure.”

The tragedy of Brian Jones demise would be the first of many rock and roll casualties. The characterization of Jones as a deeply troubled young man who had squandered his talent resonates with modern audiences nicely. It is unlikely that the Stones would ever co-operate with a film on the life of Brian Jones, so we’ll probably never get a definitive biography of the man. This is a shame because the glimpses we get into his psyche are tantalizing.

WHY RENT THIS: Brian Jones is a fascinating figure and while it is unlikely we’ll ever get a definitive biography of him this will do. Nice performances by Gregory and Considine; the movie carries an extreme amount of sex appeal. The 60s are captured nicely both in look and feel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The music of the Rolling Stones is sadly missing here, so we don’t get much of a context as to Jones’ contributions to the band. The movie dwells a bit too much on some of Jones’ addictions.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of nudity both male and female, much sexuality and a copious amount of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first directorial effort for Woolley, a writer-producer who also worked on the 1994 film Backbeat which chronicled the fifth Beatle, Stu Sutcliffe who passed away shortly after being fired from his band.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Knowing