Friday, October 16, 2015

KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE: A Carter Family documentary, good in spite of itself.

The Winding Stream:  The Carters, the Cashes & the Course of Country Music
dir. Beth Harrington;  2014. One hour forty minutes

The hippie-country group Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was always mediocre, barely on par with some of today’s “Americana” kids, most of whose anemic output would make Alvin Pleasant Carter roll in his grassy Virginia grave. The only reason anyone remembers The Dirt Band at all was their uncommon good sense (and commercial acumen) to, in 1972 , make a triple LP with some of traditional country music’s finest, and I don’t mean that goofball Hee Haw crowd. Will The Circle Be Unbroken featured (among others) Doc Watson, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Brother Oswald Kirby, Vassar Clements and the overlooked Mother Maybelle Carter, showing the younger generation just what traditional music was all about by  showcasing their own signature songs (Circle being one of Maybelle’s).

When I say Mother Maybelle was “overlooked” I speak first hand. My age group was the follow up to the original hippies, a decade later. In “high” school, we listened intently to The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers as they ushered in what was then called folk-rock. We revered Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs (who we already knew, vaguely, from the Beverly Hillbillies theme song) and Ralph Stanley when he was a mere youth in his, uh, fifties. The Circle Album (as we called it) was in heavy rotation but we always thought Maybelle rather...quaint. We didn’t know how innovative her simultaneous picked-lead and strummed-rhythm style was (“the Carter Scratch”) nor understand her roots with the most influential country band ever recorded.

Or perhaps it’s better to call the Carter family a traditional rural band. “Country” conjures up either glittery images of classic artists like Tammy Wynette or “working man” poseurs like George Strait. Neither of these fit the definition of country music from those days. Well, there was in fact no such thing as “country” then. It was marketed as “traditional” but looked down upon (even by record company execs) as “hillbilly” music: backward, outmoded and fit only for the uneducated.

With cousin Sara and Sara’s husband A.P., Maybelle was the instrumental anchor of the now neglected Carter Family. They were the pop stars of their age for country folk. I mean real country folk who butchered their own hogs every fall and mail-ordered shoes from a Sears Roebuck catalog whose pages also served as outhouse tissue. Poor though they were, enough folks managed to have radios and hand-cranked Victrola phonographs (which were outmoded even then) to share the music and their admiration of the Carter Family as “one of our’n”. 

Director Beth Harrington (a behind-the-scenes PBS stalwart and former member of the latter Modern Lovers) does an admirable job despite a few missteps. For example, interspersed throughout, we’re told multiple times in vague terms by featured musicians how the Carters influenced them and the course of country music. Curiously, Harrington devotes more time to these people covering the original songs rather than letting us hear the, uh, originals play the originals. If that last phrase sounds redundant, it is and to some degree so are John Prine, George Jones, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They all do a fine job (especially the last) but it’s almost as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the audience to appreciate eighty year old recordings except in snippets. I suppose she’s trying to emphasize their influence over their output but the Carter’s actual work is curiously often unnoticed in the race to canonize them.

Too, there’s the misguided use of colorized and animated vintage photographs of the Carters “playing” their songs. Such parlor tricks serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever: annoying at best and at worst, a visual that further serves to distract from the beautiful original recordings. Call me a Luddite (true) but it’s just one more example of how ubiquitous useless computer tricks have become. No one ever seems to ask, “What’s the point?” To me it’s just one more disservice to an audience, again not trusting we can be content with content sans bells and whistles. This ugly trick makes me out and out yearn for the now passé Ken Burns approach of slowly zooming in and out of old photographs. 

Complaints aside, there’s still some great stuff here. We’re shown just how the Carters played hundreds of live radio shows on powerful Mexican border stations that flaunted Federal transmitting rules. We see how they sold 1000s of 78 rpm shellac  records (the pre-vinyl format), quite a feat during the Great Depression when their audience was not the type that saw much hard cash, or if they did usually spent it on staples they couldn’t make or raise themselves, like nails and coffee.

It was a time of change. America was still mostly rural but the lure and power of the city was eclipsing the workaday countryside. Part of the Carters’ appeal was reaffirming traditional ideals, the value and values of country life, things which were being shunted aside in favor of steel, The Jazz Age and “progress”. This is just what the more well-known WoodyGuthrie did later when the urban takeover was real and irreversible but even he (an inveterate song collector like A.P.) gained much of his material from the Carters.

Obsessed from an early age, A.P. Carter relentlessly traveled thousands of miles to learn traditional songs before they were forgotten, all the while forgetting his own wife and children. He wanted it all: lovesick blues, jailhouse laments, hillbilly waltzes, pre-Bluegrass instrumentals and stern lesson-learned gospel. Age-old tunes sung in the fields, the hard rock coal mines or while rocking the cradle. Songs vocally passed through generations, some with obscured roots in the British Isles. These melodies and lyrics have been mixed, matched and reused countless times to form the basis of what we now call folk music and country music.  For this The Carter Family must be thanked but their performances must also be heard and appreciated.

But the story doesn’t stop here. As popular tastes changed and the troubled A.P. and Sara slowly withdrew from performing (going the very untraditional route of divorce, mostly unheard of among “good” church people in those days), Maybelle forged ahead recruiting daughters June, Helen, and Anita to form The Carter Sisters in 1943.  Radio dates and records followed as as well as the de rigueur and well-received Grand Old Opry appearances. By 1950, Johnny Cash entered the picture, intractably pursuing June to eventual marriage despite both of them being already wed. See: Ring Of Fire, Cash’s most overplayed song, followed closely by Folsom Prison Blues.  

In the ‘60s, Cash used his fame and ill-fated TV show to advantage. It was ill-fated because he was too controversial a figure in the Vietnam era, a true outlaw unlike drunken louts like Hank Williams Jr or Waylon Jennings. To his great credit, Cash used his brief media power to spotlight heroes like PeteSeeger who was widely thought to be a communist traitor.  Cash especially took pleasure in bringing the family act that he adored back to wider acclaim. Being part of that family now by marriage was just a bonus. In interviews recorded just weeks before his death, Cash’s humble awe and reverence is plain to see and a decided highlight of the film.

Despite the flaws, Harrigton’s admiration is also apparent as she brings The Carter Family story to a wide audience at just the right time when hundreds of indie rock kids are unplugging to clumsily pick up thrift store banjos and ukuleles.

This piece originally appeared in unaltered format in The Albuquerque Free Press.

Monday, February 2, 2015


originally printed May 2005


      music n’ movies, music in movies

Standing In the Shadows Of Motown  (2002)

Don’t forget the Motor City..!

The world has finally caught up with the Funk Brothers, the studio musicians behind a hundred and one Motown hits, “The Sound of Young America” in the early 1960s, the songs before only credited to the Four Tops, the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes…

As the label founder, he may have turned out to be a weasel (moving the entire operation to L.A. without notifying the people he didn’t care to have follow)  but Berry Gordy was a genius in assembling his personnel. The Funk Brothers were never a group per se but out of dozens of musicians there were a few anchors: James Jamerson (bass), Joe Hunter & Earl Van Dyke (keys), Pistol Allen, Bennie Benjamin & Uriel Jones (drums), Bongo Brown (percussion) and Joe Messina & Bob Babbitt (guitar). These guys were as essential to their company sound as Atlantic Records’ Muscle Shoals Wrecking Crew or Stax’s Mar-Keys and Booker T & the MGs. 

The Funks had to follow studio arrangements, of course but these were loose, allowing them to incorporate their own ideas consistently. Unbeatable in  combination with the songwriting of Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield and the incomparable Holland/ Dozier/ Holland; with the voices of David Ruffin, Otis & Paul Williams & Melvin Franklin (the Tempts), the punchy soul of Gladys Knight (the Pips), the purring control of Mary Wells, the dramatic Levi Stubbs (the ‘Tops) and sweet-voiced  Smokey himself (the Miracles).

Some black folk thought Motown  (Hitsville USA) was too slick compared to Stax (Soulsville USA) and the gritty soul of Otis Redding or Wilson “the Wicked” Pickett-- and they were right; but never before had so many from-the-ghetto groups topped the white-dominated pop charts all at the same time.

Motown execs wisely demo’ed the songs through tinny transistor radio and factory-install car speakers to hear them like the record-buying kids would hear them. It paid off big time. This movie is another matter. Part documentary, part reenactment (the lamest parts of the movie by far) and part reunion concert,  its uneven as hell. If not for the subject matter, no one would have given the rave reviews its garnered. The reenactments were throwaway moments in the story and served no purpose, while the MLK Freedom March shots have been done to death; no justice or new revelation was done to either here.  

I couldn’t just stand up and dance in the middle of the theater but considered it; even so, the reunion footage got my feet tapping although the singers ranged from good to fair to dreadful. At the top was (believe it or not) Joan Osborne with the hottest cover ever of What Becomes of the Broken Hearted. Marvin-wannabe Ben Harper was horrid & wan and M’chelle Ngodosho should’ve been booted into the street for fucking up --oh, excuse me -- interpreting the vocal phrasings in such an off-the- mark way. It might work legitimately with other arrangements but it  didn’t work with the classic Motown.  As a singer, funk-legend bassist Bootsy Collins was notably un-good but so what--say yeah! its Bootsy!

Chaka Khan was just ok but too bad no one approached she’s-still-got-it Patti LaBelle who would’ve nailed them all perfectly. Even worse, apparently no one asked Martha Reeves who was in the damn movie and even expressed her wish to rejoin the Brothers on stage sometime!  Somebody’s head ought to roll for that one.

Most importantly, though, here the Funks finally got the chance to show off their jazz chops. They weren’t pop guys, they weren’t rock and rollers but most of them were brought up on corn bread, beans, blues and boogie in the south. This background was key to what they brought to Motown and what made the music so distinct.

Two years after seeing in on the screen I found the saving grace for this doc in the DVD edition and it is solid gold: three jam sessions with the reunited Funks in the studio, beautiful pieces of jazz n’ soul with no vocalists to get in the way played by musicians who know where each other is gonna riff before they do it.

In execution, I’d vote this one of the least worst documentaries ever made but at least  the Funk Brothers story has finally been told. Too bad the film makers don’t understand the vernacular.

Groove (2000)

Forget this one on your home screen but in the theater, it sucks you into the techno groove and makes you wonder why you’re not out eating Ecstasy and getting your thing on with a young & cute candy-raver. 

Run Lola Run (1999)

The first movie to effectively use techno on a soundtrack, Run Lola Run was also lauded as the picture that was going to revolutionize film-making, ushering in an era of interactive flicks with multiple endings to choose from, echoing the video-game experience. Thank god it hasn’t come to pass.

Is that really what the art form needs, an audience of guys who spend their free time in virtual worlds of killing sprees and grand theft auto? When travesties like Terminal Velocity and American Pie pull in the crowds do you honestly think anyone from those audiences could make an intelligent or thoughtful choice of endings or plot threads? Everything would either end in orgies or bloodbaths--most likely  both simultaneously. Or their equally insipid girlfriends would drag & drog Viggo Mortensen into The Wedding Planner. Its bad enough to have DVD releases restoring outtakes that lead nowhere, drop the pace of the film dead in its tracks or show off the indulgence of vanity “director’s cuts”. Restoring films like Welles’ Touch of Evil to their proper and coherent form makes sense; even having a chance to see Michael Cimino’s indulgently beautiful Heaven’s Gate is alright but no one (no one!) needs to see Ashton Kuchter in the long version of Just Married.

It is good that the “future of film” that Lola was supposed to inspire hasn’t happened…yet. It does however stand as one of the few modern movies where the score was integral and integrated beautifully. Run Lola Run was also one of the last (if not the last) whose soundtrack album was actually music from the film and not old & tired classic hits tied in with the marketing department of the record label that the studio also owns.

Kill Bill (2004)

Quentin Tarantino is a derivative hack who would best serve the film world by quietly going back to where he came from:  behind the counter in some video store. This because he knows good  cinema when he sees it; he just can’t create it.

Waiting for the cameo appearance of Japanese girl garage band the was the only thing that kept me from walking out of the piece of junk that was Kill Bill. The are also derivative but have class in a trashy way and unlike Tarantino hold no pretension in what they do.

the Man With the Golden Arm (1955)

Card games and curvy dames. Dirty dealing and a dope addict drummer tryin’ to kick, all to a jazz beat by Elmer Bernstein. Not a great movie but mid-50s Hollywood’s idea of underbelly reality. Overacted by everyone including the Oscar-Nominated (huh?) Frank Sinatra, the wooden but hubba-hubba looker Kim Novak and fakin’-it cripple Eleanor Parker. Still  I watch it anyway just to see two-time loser Frankie Machine battle his need for a fix and ambition for drum sticks. Although Billy Wilder’s 1945 The Lost Weekend is the mother of all cold-turkey movies, this flick is more enjoyable than it ought to be. Maybe because 1955 censors wouldn’t allow all the puking and shitting-your-pants that goes along with kicking the habit.

flyer for the show. one dollar. one dollar!!!

Wattstax (1973)

This documentary is from a time when niggers were badass instead of today’s chickenshit gangstaz. It’s on-the-streets commentary and a concert to commemorate the 1965 Watts riots (or Watts uprising, depending on which side you’re on). Among many Stax/Volt artists it features Isaac “the Black Moses” Hayes; the funky, funky  Bar-Kays; the styling Dramatics; a searing sexy performance by the overlooked and under-rated pre-disco Johnnie Taylor; and the daddy of ‘em all Mr Rufus Thomas and daughter Carla, all from when the Soul  was stacked as high as the ‘fro on a brother’s head. Fuck Tupac. Can you say “dignity”? It’s all up in here. Even young Richard Pryor is looking good!

Besides being a landmark concert event, (a crowd of 90,000 black faces in the LA Coliseum including all roadies, security and support personnel? you bet it scared the crap out of the honky city fathers!), this is one of the first and finest music documentaries, leaving every other contemporary one --Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, Ziggy Stardust-- deep in the motherfucking dust.   

the Mayor of Sunset Strip (2004)

Rodney “Rodney on the ROQBingenheimer has hung with everyone from the Monkees and Sonny & Cher, through Bowie and LA rock impresario & predator Kim Fowley, all the way up to No Doubt and Coldplay. In other words, he’s been on the music scene of everything (commercially) happenin’ since about 1965. The first to spin on air among others, the Ramones and Blondie (and yes Coldplay, and No Doubt), Rodney’s been on the scene with an uncanny knack of “breaking” bands and knowing who’s gonna be important in music show biz, like playing Oasis on cassette before anyone stateside ever heard the yobs.

And its all been for the love of the music. Once a mainstay of KROQ (which now specializes in nu-metal proto-rave; sadly nobody gives a shit anymore when Brian Wilson is the on-air guest), the man’s been demoted to be a once-a-week graveyard two-hour show, drives his mom’s old Chevy Nova and lives in a modest (crappy) suburban house; he didn’t make no fortune for loving and promoting the rock. True, at home, he’s surrounded by piles of memorabilia like Beatles gold records and Elvis’ driver’s license that’s worth mega-bucks but this stuff won’t hit the collector market until Rodney’s stone cold in his grave.

This excellent film makes him out to be a sad & pathetic overlooked, lonely little man --which he is--but c’mon: he’s been places done things with people the average star-struck bastard can only dream about as well as having more than his share of young and supple nubiles. Monkee Davey Jones’ stand-in? The owner of Rodney’s English Disco where Bowie and Iggy hobnobbed? The subject of more than one rocknroll song? Bingenheimer might be a geeky music fan but in all, he isn’t doing so bad at all.

Ortho Tri-Cyclen Lo, tv commercial (2004)

This one impresses the hell out of me. Christian “rockers” Sixpence None the Richer license their year 2000 hit There She Goes to a birth control commercial? Outstanding! A band that was actually adequate alt.rock ten years ago (check their 1995 release This Beautiful Mess), Sixpence made it big on the Christian Rock circuit but can still think for themselves. It’s a turn of events that just has to be giving Born-Again’s epileptic fits.For that, I truly praise Jesus.

this is not a poster but a lobby card. back in ancient times, a multitude of these (on heavy card stock) were distro'ed to theatres which would display them behind glass frames in the (duh) lobby.

Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Musically and cinematically, Elvis Presley immediately became history  when this film hit the screen. Originally conceived as a throwaway by United Artists who only wanted the movie to cash in on a soundtrack LP, it was the picture’s and the Beatles’ good fortune that director Richard Lester was picked for the project. The Fab Four didn’t give a toss about his oeuvre but were impressed by his early association with Spike Milligan  and The Goons (an inspiration to all of Monty Python) and which lent a goofy flavor to Hard Day’s Night.   

Written off as fluff by conservative anti-Beatle ranks and over-shadowed by teen Beatlemania, most viewers at the time failed to notice the sharp black and white compositions (UA didn’t want to spring for costly color on a ”fad” flick) and inventive camerawork that made up for the money Lester didn’t have to spend.

It still stands up today, capturing the giddiness of the period and forever establishing each Beatle character: Ringo loveable and gullible, John wise & witty etc. For the most part, the music was worked into the script --the band rehearsing and playing the climactic show or a song’s theme echoing the onscreen mood.

Too bad the 1965 follow-up Help! was allowed a bigger budget since now that the Fab Four was big business, it also hobbled Lester who turned in a piece of junk, more like what Beatle detractors thought Hard Day’s Night would be. Help! spawned  the Pre-Fab Four--the Monkees-- to cash in on the “loveable lads in goofy adventures” thing.  At least it gave Texan Michael Nesmith (y’know, the Monkee with the hat?) a chance to sneak in a few overlooked and under-rated country-flavor bubblegum classics like The Kind of Girl I Could Love and You Just May Be the One.

the End of The Century: the story of the ramones (2004)

OneTwoThreeFour! Not only the best Ramones doc ever made but a  good film as well: smart, sharp, crisp, well constructed and a decent amount of footage of “da brudders” that you haven’t seen much, if at all. Sadly the most recent interviews were done after Joey blitzkrieg bopped but, timely, before Johnny and Dee Dee did likewise. Tommy gets a fair amount of play as well, the most level-headed Ramone of all (one out of six isn’t so bad I guess). You’ll cheer, you’ll boo and hiss, you may even cry  but you’ll surely be smiling as well as laughing along with--okay, let’s get real--laughing at poor ol’ Dee Dee.

West Side Story (1961)

This one may seem quaint by today’s standards but in 1961, the idea of a color Hollywood musical filmed on location in the streets of New York City sans flashy costumes was like a slap across the face, a wake-up to the possibilities of cinema that the majority of television-obsessed 1950s America had forgotten all about. Director Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins turned a hit melodramatic Broadway play into a uh melodramatic movie complete with Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score and Stephen Sondheim’s jarring-for-the-time lyrics. Its all about the context at the time of its release and the industry responded by honoring crew & cast with  a sweep at the Oscars, including the sassy and hot Rita Moreno.

It feels and reads very much like the stage but the musical numbers bring it alive without a trace of camp or novelty. Watch this one through the eyes of its time & place, try not to let the sappy love song numbers bother you and you’ll soon be slipping down the mean streets, snapping your fingers and whistling When you’re a Jet.

DOA (1981)

The disastrous Sex Pistols USA tour interspersed with clips of pub-punters Sham 69, a still-worthy Generation X before Billy Idol believed his name, the under-rated pre-Pere Ubu band the Dead Boys and the band that mystified most punkers even then (saxophone?!) the great X-Ray Spex. Music as raw and as fucked up as the footage of Sid nodding off while sod-girl Nancy tries to revive him for an interview.  This was the period when punk rock truly deserved its name. Watch this movie long enough and you’ll be gobbing at the screen.

Tributary (2000)

Personally I think you have to be an idiot to enjoy tribute bands (I never wanted to see the real Sabbath, Priest, Yes or Kiss in the fucking first place) but even worse are the musicians with failed careers who justify their existence in mistaking the fans’ misplaced worship for appreciation of their own miserable talent. This is one of the rare times I’d rather see a musician making Subway sandwiches for a living than getting paid for prolonging this sort of drivel. The real head-scratcher here is the Guided By Voices tribute band. For god-sakes, guys, let Robert Pollard drink himself to death in peace!


i always wondered who responded to these ads. when the cover story in the comic book involved,say, giant gorillas with green kryptonite vision, you had to wonder about the audience.

Off the Charts (2002)

When I was a child there used to be ads in the back of comic books promising to Set Your Poems To Music! with the implication that stardom --or at least royalty checks --were yours to be had and all for a low, low fee. Of course dumb little kids aren’t expected to know any better --we were the fifth-graders mailing in four quarters taped to a piece of cardboard for a pair of X-Ray Specs and, no, we didn’t care about any of that “see your skeleton” jazz but classmate Pauline Duddy’s sprouting tits.  The Spex usually never arrived anyway but when they did, they didn’t work. We got rooked!

Yup, we were taken in, just as countless adults who ought to know better (probably even some that we had to obey!)  paid upwards of fifty bucks to have a 45 single cut of their godawful “poetry” by a (ha-ha) vocalist and (ha-ha-ha) band who cranked out hundreds of these things, sometimes dozens in a few hours.

There’s interviews with collectors of these wretched mementos (I’m glad somebody’s keeping these for pop culture posterity but thank god it ain’t me) as well as the musicians and promoters who aren’t so stupid as to pretend they were actually doing anyone any favors. But flat-out pathetic are the characters who had their “songs” recorded and are actually pleased with the results. One or two of them are uh shall we say playing their 33’s at 16 RPM but most seem like ordinary folks, proving once again that ordinary folks are the ones you really have to watch out for.In any case, these clowns got what they deserved. Me too I guess but damn I sure wish those spex had really worked…

Royal Caribbean Lines tv commercial (2004)

Whatever Gen-X ad-exec thought to use the Iggy Pop/David Bowie written  Lust For Life on this commercial had to know what he was doing but a song (edited of course) with lyrics about sleeping on the sidewalk and liquor and drugs for a Disneyesque family fun on a cruise ship? Its simply a mind-fuck, especially for the people who’ve never heard the entire song.

American Dreams (2004, tv series)

Dick Clark--the teenager that wouldn’t die--is behind this shallow-minded series. The background for the one-dimensional events that befall a “typical” American family is his show American Bandstand where two high school girls, best friends, dance each week, solving problems like integration, police brutality and Viet Nam while gyrating to the latest hits. The weekly casting of the musicians is horrendous: Leeann Rimes as Connie Francis, Duncan Sheik as Bobby Darrin, HilaryDuff as the Shangri-La’s Mary Weiss and most insulting, Macy Gray as the First Lady of Stax, Carla Thomas. Liz Phair as Jackie DeShannon was mildly acceptable.

Its an awful show but one guaranteed an audience of my fellow baby-boomers who (due to constant rehashing in the media) believe that we were all personally present at every generation-defining event: King, Kennedy and Kent State. And all boomers too believe that they watched Bandstand weekly without fail. Me, sure I watched it some but was much more enamored of Where The Action Is, hosted by Paul Revere and the Raiders who created more goofy excitement in their silly costumes than anemic and lackluster Dick Clark could even if he were passing out one-hundred dollar bills. If there was any justice in the world in those days, Clark would’ve been the one assassinated instead of JFK.

the Life Aquatic  (2004) submitted by  Marvel Girl

As somebody who believes the words “David Bowie” to be synonymous with “wimpy crap” I found myself slightly disappointed that this masterpiece of a movie consisted of a mostly Bowie-based soundtrack.  The Portuguese renderings of the songs, however, made them more beautiful.  And the point at which our protagonist takes back his dignity and power is highlighted by a transition from Bowie to the Stooges- pure genius, raw power.

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! (1998) contributed by Obenjyo

I thought that when I was going to write for this I would be doing Magical Mystery Tour, but as John Lennon says in the opening of Hail! Hail! " If you were to try to give rock 'n' roll another name you might call it Chuck Berry”. Right. In the 1950's a whole generation worshipped his music and when you see him perform today, past and present all come together. The message is hail! hail! rock 'n' roll, right on!  So I changed my mind after seeing this one. Lennon says it all and this tape proves it. And I feel it needed to be, while everyone has been jacking off to the Hives, the White Stripes, Nirvana, the Clash, the Pistols, Sabbath, the Stones, Dylan, or even the Beatles, it is unfortunate that Chuck Berry is left out.

This documentary was made in '88, the cover box and the intro commercial for the film and soundtrack made me dread wasting two hours of my life. I really hate when people try to translate other decades into their own time, via film, t.v., music or art. It almost always comes out wrong. Also in the film Berry is 60, so general wisdom suggests that he is going to be old and tired. Passable at best. Well it's quite the opposite. All the music is performed live and Berry is still, remarkably, a bad ass. The man is limber and still has great moves. He plays great, sharp and articulate. Even when he screws up his power carries him. I would even say his personality is regal in comparison to his reputation. Which Berry will not allow his "past" into the film, which tries to creep in. A strange character as Keith Richards points out that the more you know about him the less you know.

Guest interviews include Roy Orbison, Everly Bros., Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Lennon, Willie Dixon, and Berry's family. Interesting conversations between Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley. And a great story by, of all people, Bruce Springsteen. Also Johnny Johnson who was Berry's original piano man, is also interviewed and apparently it is suggested that he and Berry have not played together for 20 years until '88.  Somehow Keith Richards arranged this, the film, and the show finale which is an all star performance.

Although I prefer the more intimate performances at the beginning of the film, it's a good tribute. No updating Berry for the 80's and the guest performers are respectful. No showboating. Berry is the star and the King of rock 'n' roll. If you haven't seen this film it will change how you look at Chuck Berry.          


Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Pretty crappy as film and barely even home-movie quality --or maybe it was the print of this hard-to-find, multiple-generation-duped flick? But its worthy of a screening nonetheless, being mostly the Rolling Stones fucking around behind and off-stage on tour at a crucial moment in their never-ending career : post-Gimme Shelter (their finest hour if you ask me) but just after Exile On Main Street (their last hurrah, also if you ask me).

As expected, there’s plenty of sex and drugs in addition to the rock and the roll (and not just a little nodding out). While there’s footage of people shooting & snorting dope, film-maker Robert Frank was smart enough to edit out any actual footage of the Stones themselves breaking the law. Don’t forget, just a few years previous Scotland Yard’s Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher (immortalized as “Semolina Pilcher” in John Lennon’s I Am the Walrus) was making a name for himself by drug-busting various Beatles and Stones as well as Donovan and Marianne Faithful.

There’s a few scenes of groupies and various hangers-on getting fucked up -- and just plain fucked: its more than a little disturbing to watch a girl on a private jet not quite willingly stripped and screwed by some guy while the “lads” play bongos and cheer him on.

This movie is all that rock n’ roll decadence you’ve heard so much about all these years. But its also the just plain boring moments between what is likely Mick and Keith’s ultimate high: onstage in front of  thousands of people going crazy for the traveling Jagger-Richards self-indulgence show.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

It seemed like a good idea, to make a life-action (va-va-voom!) version of Archie Comics’  spin-off Josie and the Pussycats. The first mistake though was updating the pre-fab bubblegum soul of the original cartoon series -- of course this was to be expected.

But updating the Pussycats to an alt.rock sound in 2001 was more than a few years too late (even though someone had the sense to get Kaye Hanley of short-lived alterntive rock phenoms Letters To Cleo as the songwriter/vocals for Josie). And worst of all (or maybe this is a sad comment about me) the comic books Pussycats are way hotter than Rachel Leigh Cook, Tara Reid or Rosario Dawson.

The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

Art design somewhere between Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Lang’s Metropolis, like Kenneth Anger remaking Eisenstein’s Potemkin  on the same film stock used for Griffith’s Way Down East and pushing the f-stop as far as it will go in either direction, this is not-quite a musical. A global variety of musicians compete for a $25,000 grand prize in Depression-era Winnipeg to make the saddest music in the world. Full to the brim of a beer stein with racial stereotypes, lust, betrayal, lager bathing and the wonderful Isabella Rossellini supported by a great performance by Mark McKinney. Words fail. The music mystifies. The images skew. 

Capital One credit cards tv commercial

Not only is it an insult to the great Isley Brothers to use their 1962 Nobody But Me for a lowly credit card ad but an insult as well to the chart-topping 1967 cover by party-rockers the Human Beinz. Even moreso since the promo spot features dickhead twerp David Spade.


Leadbelly (1976)

About three-quarters of way through this life story of the noted folksinger Hudie Ledbetter (always misclassified as a bluesman), I realized it was no ordinary skim-the-surface rags-to-riches story (or in Leadbelly’s case, rags-to-better-rags).

Director Gordon Parks is more interested in details and mood. For example, when Leadbelly escapes the chain gang, the chase lasts for a good twenty minutes. Any other Hollywood biopic would have done with it in five, just another stop along the way to the obligatory fame and acclaim. Parks dispenses with Leadbelly’s own actual happy ending, finally recognized as a international treasure, awarded his own 1940s radio show and influencing the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who in turn helped usher in the 1960s folk revival (by the grace of God, Leadbelly died in 1948 long before he could witness the gutless and anemic Kingston Trio became the USA’s most popular folksingers).

Hard living, hard-fighting, hard-drinking, hard-fucking, Hudie Ledbetter was not a saintly man, having been convicted of (and serving time for) killings, stabbings and carrying weapons no less than four times. Parks concentrates on Leadbelly leaving his Louisiana home at age 16 into his third prison term in his late forties.

Nothing fancy as cinema, it remains mostly quick-paced in spite of  the two full hour running time. The performances however were a trifle disturbing. Maybe its just residual of my white liberal upbringing ( read : uneasy guilt) but the entire cast seemed guilty of tomming, cooning and plenty of Buckwheat-isms, ala the eyepopping 1930-40s black actors Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland. Even that dreadful TV show In Living Color’s Homie the Clown has more dignity than this film’s characterization of lesser known but equally great blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson (who posthumously lent his name to a San Francisco rock group first known as Blind Jefferson Airplane).

And speaking of blues legends, an early scene showed Ledbetter in a barroom playing with a kid blowing harp. In the final credits my astute ears were rewarded (thank you very much) by the confirmation that the actual riffs were indeed played by Sonny Terry, the Jimi Hendrix of the blues harmonica, ten years before his death at age 75.

Since all of Ledbetter’s catalogue was recorded on 78 rpm shellac, a studio musician was used instead since the quality wouldn’t have matched a modern theatre sound system. But as one who was buying Leadbelly records when I was 14, I couldn’t help being disappointed in not hearing the originals.1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter is the only musical biopic where the soundtrack voice (Sissy Spacek) matched and at times outdid the subject’s (Loretta Lynn).

Faults or not, this film is rarely seen and deserves wider revivals.

Rock & Roll  (1995)

I’ve watched and re-watched (and re-re-watched) this legendary five part doc (BBC and Boston’s WGBH) on poorly taped VHS cassettes I made when it originally aired on PBS . Despite clocking in at ten hours it’s a populist history , giving short shrift (if any shrift at all) to obsessed fan favorites ( what do you mean there was no room for The Rezillos?! ). However it remains the best rock history ever filmed. Never commercially available, it can be viewed online and in vaguely acceptable qualitybootlegs.

DO NOT  confuse this with Time-Life's similar five part series, The History of Rock 'n' Roll (2004) unless you want to hear the pontificating Bono and other what-the-hell-is-he-doing-here commentators offering useless “insight”.

Like a bad movie sequel, SoundTrack #2 is even worse than #1 and took three years to complete. It was hardly worth the wait…

Sound♫Track #2, May 2005 is a member of the  WigWamBam family of hack publications and may be found anywhere I choose to leave it whenever I damn well feel like writing an issue.

Respectfully and appreciatively dedicated to 

Keif and Peter (the punks of cinematic appreciation!) 
at the Guild Cinema 3405 Central Ave. NE Albuquerque, NM   
where I saw almost half of the movies dissected here

and to

Pumpernick Eggburger & staff at the long-defunct Elgin Cinema 
(Eighth Avenue, Chelsea, NYC, NY) where I spent many a teen-age hour and  many days on end watching the month-long Buster Keaton revival, the all-night Kurosawa /samurai festival.  Sex! (Roger Vadim’s Barbarella; my first onscreen popshot (In the Realm of the Senses); adventure! (the original Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman series) and everything else from John Ford to El Topo where one might rub elbows with  William K Everson ( author and NYU film prof), and dozing bums ( that's what we called homeless back then) all the while possibly inhaling second hand marijuana smoke.

i still miss this movie house terribly

in total, i probably spent about twenty-four hours at this festival, taking the train from NJ into the "The City" each week for the new bill. this was long before home video and TCM.