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!

The Peanuts Movie


Good ol' Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

Good ol’ Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

(2015) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Noah Schnapp, Alex Garfin, Bill Melendez, Kristin Chenoweth, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Venus Schultheis, Rebecca Bloom, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Noah Johnston, Francesca Capaldi, Anastasia Bredikhina, William Wunsch, Marelik “Mar Mar” Walker, A.J. Tecce, Madisyn Shipman. Directed by Steve Martino

 

When I was growing up, Peanuts was a thing. Charles Schulz created a comic strip that millions of kids related to whether they knew it or not. I always saw myself as Charlie Brown (which some psychiatrists might have had a field day with); something of a perpetual failure, disliked by everyone other than Linus and his little sister Sally, and doomed to be the butt of everyone’s jokes in school. I felt many of those same feelings myself, although I also felt redeemed by Charlie Brown’s sweet nature and inner kindness.

Schulz died in 2000 and while the TV specials – including the classic Christmas and Halloween specials – continue to run annually on network television. The strip is in syndication and while there have been no new Peanuts material since Schulz passed away, this movie intends to introduce the characters to an entirely new audience – while reacquainting them with the audience that has grown up and has children – and in some cases grandchildren – of their own.

Charlie Brown (Schnapp) is one of those kids for whom nothing just ever seems to go right. The object of ridicule for most of his classmates, who refer to him as a blockhead, he wears one shirt and one shirt only – a yellow t-shirt with a black zigzag pattern on the front, and seems to have no hair except for a tuft up front. Still, he’s a good, decent sort and while he has few friends – his neighbor Linus van Pelt (Garfin) is one – he looks after his little sister Sally (Sheets) and his beagle Snoopy (Melendez) who is, perhaps, the most unusual dog ever.

For one thing, Snoopy is writing a novel about his alter ego, the World War I flying ace, perpetually battling his nemesis, the notorious Red Baron who has outdone himself for dastardliness – he’s kidnapped French flying ace Fifi (Chenoweth), a poodle whom the WWIFA has his eye on.

In the meantime, Charlie Brown has his eye on someone too – the Little Red-Haired Girl (Capaldi) who just moved into the neighborhood. He dreams of having a friend who doesn’t know about his record of failure and will like him just for himself. However, as usual, Charlie Brown manages to sabotage himself.

However, his luck is changing. When the class takes a standardized test, Charlie Brown becomes the first kid in school history to answer the questions 100% correct. Suddenly, he becomes – gasp – popular. People think he’s smart. People think he’s special. The adulation becomes a bit more than Charlie Brown can handle, particularly when he discovers that there was a mix-up in the scores.

This is very much like the Peanuts we all remember, at least those of us who remember it at all. It has that same sweet quality that bespeaks of the resilience of the eternal optimist that things will get better – that being Charlie Brown – and that for all our faults, that deep down there is something good about all of us. Even the bossy and occasional overbearing Lucy (Miller) who still dispenses psychiatric advice – most of which does more harm than good – for five cents. Inflation hasn’t touched everything, it seems.

The music cues echo those of Vince Guaraldi as composer Christophe Beck incorporates many of Guaraldi’s familiar melodies into the score. There are also some pop songs in the soundtrack which wasn’t something Schulz ever did with the specials (although to be honest those were directed by Bill Melendez although Schulz certainly had input into such matters), but the songs themselves are pretty bland and inoffensive, familiar enough to be recognizable without taking over the film.

One thing that isn’t the same is the animation which is 3D. It is jarring at first to see it, although the familiar simplicity of the Schulz drawings have been retained; they’ve just been given depth. Some purists might cringe; to be honest, I don’t think doing the animation in traditional 2D would have made much of a difference and I don’t think the 3D is going to bring new viewers in. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really harm anything and you get used to it in the first few minutes.

In many ways, this will be more of a treat for the parents rather than the kids. Modern kids, used to the stuff they see on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, will not be as interested in the Peanuts gang. After all, being kids they’ll want to go with what they’re familiar with and what’s being marketed better. One kid told a friend of mine who offered to take them to the movies and had suggested The Peanuts Movie that he would close his eyes for the entire movie if they took him to see that one, so they ended up seeing the vastly inferior The Good Dinosaur instead.

That’s a shame because they ended up missing a very good movie. I can see why kids would be a little hostile towards it, but at the end of the day Peanuts really belongs to a different generation than the ones that make up the core audience for animated features these days. By all means, bring your kids but I think it’s the parents who are going to have the best time at the movie.

REASONS TO GO: Instant trip down Memory Lane for parents. Enjoyable on all levels for kids.
REASONS TO STAY: Some kids may not relate to Charlie Brown and the gang the way their parents and grandparents did.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the segment when Charlie Brown becomes popular, Shermy grabs his arm and exclaims “I saw him first!” In the very first Peanuts strip, Shermy was the first member of the gang to lay eyes on Charlie Brown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Over the Hedge
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret in Their Eyes

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding


Living the hippie life.

Living the hippie life.

(2011) Comedy (IFC) Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Ann Osmond, Rbert Bowen Jr., Marissa O’Donnell, Nat Wolff, Elizabeth Olsen, Joyce Van Patten, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyle MacLachlan, Joseph Dunn, Chace Crawford, Rosanna Arquette, Katharine McPhee, Denise Burse, Teri Gibson, Poorna Jagannathan, Terry McKenna, Wayne Pyle, Alison Ball, Laurent Rejto. Directed by Bruce Beresford

When things are going wrong in our lives, it is a natural instinct to run back home to our parents. Sometimes, we just crave the comfort of being next to our figures of security but other times, it’s their wisdom that we truly need.

Diane (Keener) is a high-powered Manhattan lawyer who is used to being in control. When her husband (MacLachlan) announces that he wants to divorce her, it shakes her to her very core. Needing a refuge, she decides to go home to mom in Woodstock. The trouble is, Diane’s mom Grace (Fonda) is something of a free spirit who hasn’t really left the 60s and the two women, as different as night and day, haven’t really spoken in 20 years.

But Diane has more than her own pride to think about. Her young son Jake (Wolff) is terribly shy and lacks self-confidence. That might just be because her daughter Zoe (Olsen), a budding poet, is terribly judgmental about things and people. Her kids need a support system while Diane tries to put her shattered life back together.

All three find Grace to be more than a little irritating at first and Woodstock a bit too sedate for their liking. However, all three find romantic interests; Jake falls for Tara (O’Donnell), a waitress at the local coffee shop; Zoe, a vegan, against all odds develops a crush on Cole (Crawford), a butcher. Even Diane finds time to become romantically involved with Jude (Morgan), a budding musician.

As the family finds healing in the love of others, Grace and Diane begin to find common ground. Can the two women, at war with each other for over two decades, finally make peace? Maybe there’s hope for the Middle East yet if these two can mend their differences.

Australian director Bruce Beresford has some pretty nifty movies to his credit and while he hasn’t really made it to the top tier of Hollywood directors, he is nonetheless well-respected and has had a consistent career. This movie isn’t one that is going to be a resume highlight but it nonetheless has its own kind of charm.

Chief among its charms is Fonda, who rarely gets lead roles these days and usually plays crusty old broads, curmudgeonly old mothers-in-law or this one, the eccentric granny. We tend to forget what an amazing career Fonda has had, with Oscar-caliber performances in Klute, Coming Home and On Golden Pond.

Also of note is the village of Woodstock. Famous for the music festival (which actually took place on a farm 60 miles away), the town – if this movie is to be believed – has capitalized on the notoriety of the festival and has become kind of a high-end Berkeley (those of you who live or have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area will immediately know what I mean). Think of it as a college town permanently stuck in a by-gone era.

This isn’t an inconsequential film mind you, but it isn’t something you have to overthink. It’s a charming, pleasant diversion that might bring a smile to your face and is nicely performed and directed. It won’t necessarily change your life any although the lessons it teaches about living life at a pace that doesn’t burn you out is well-taken (the ones about being in love solving all your problems, not so much) and you’re never really hit over the head with them. It’s one of those movies that gives you the warm fuzzies and sometimes, like a hug from your mom, that’s all you need.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong female roles and performances. Woodstock is a charming location.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit scattershot. Seems to indicate that the secret to happiness is romance.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few sexual references and some comedic drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although two films she performed after shooting this one were released before it, this was actress Elizabeth Olsen’s first cinematic acting job.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $590,700 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Georgia Rules
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Insidious Chapter III

Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi