Tag Archives: rock documentaries

A Poem is a Naked Person: Leon Russell’s New 1974 Documentary

11 Nov


“I’ll put on a show for you if you put on a show for me” (www.janusfilms.com/poem)

If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.

Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.

poem_poster_smallBy the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).

For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.

Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting.  It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.

See you on the flip side …

Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers. 

Love Is a Losing Game – Amy: The Girl Behind the Name

15 Jul

Amy Winehouse documentaryWhen a gifted genius like Amy Winehouse dies young and horribly, you just want to find someone to blame for the terrible waste of talent and potential. Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy: The Girl Behind the Name, names numerous suspects:

  • Was it her dad, who left the family when Amy was nine and later talked her out of rehab right before stardom made recovery nigh impossible?
  • Maybe it was her mom, who refused to discipline her daughter as a child and did nothing about teenaged Amy’s bulimia, thinking she’d grow out of it.
  • How about her manager, who was also her promoter – hellbent on making her perform even when she was unwell and unwilling?
  • Most definitely Blake Fielder-Civil, her shitbag of a husband, had a hand in it, as he feasted on her insecurities and bank account to support his own drug habit – and expanded her repertory by introducing her to heroin and crack.
  • But so did we, the fans who made her a star and then, when her addictions were getting the best of her, turned her life into a tasteless series of Amy Wino jokes and frightful photos.
  • And let’s face it, Amy’s worst enemy was often Amy herself, as she couldn’t distance herself from alcohol and drugs long enough to save her voice, her career and ultimately, her life.

I knew this film was going to be painful. How could it not be when we all know how she was going to end up? The film is even more of a wrecking ball because Kapadia was given access to a trove of video footage from family and friends to ground the film in Amy’s beginnings as a sassy teenager with a one-in-a-million voice. Amy is rarely out of the picture, as audio interviews with her friends, family and associates fill in the blanks between her performances and interviews. Her songs are used as the libretto of the film, floating over the action to point up how songwriting was her way of processing her life.

And when it gets ugly, Kapadia doesn’t shy away, and your heart breaks a little more with each explosive flash of the paparazzi’s cameras.

Amy’s reaction to winning the Grammy as best new artist, as announced by her idol Tony Bennett, was a perfect example of the clash between who she had become and who she wanted to be:

If only Bennett had been able to work with her earlier in her career, perhaps she’d be alive today, wowing people in jazz clubs across the globe as the next Dinah Washington, instead of being another member of the 27 Club. We’ll never know.

On July 23, 2011, our family was on a road trip back from Boston. I was reading Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? (great title, disappointing book) and came up on his name check of Amy Winehouse as a fellow traveler stumbling off the road to recovery. Within a few minutes of me turning that page, NPR announced she had been found dead in her apartment. It wasn’t a surprise. It was, and still is, a colossal shame, because her limited catalog only shows a small part of what she was capable of as an artist – and her beauty was like no other.

See this film – and if you want even more material, check out her album Live at the BBC to hear more music and enjoy the DVD that comes with the record to see Amy Winehouse at the top of her game.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be signing books at the Arts, Books & Brews Pub Crawl on July 29 in beautiful downtown Howell, Michigan. See you there!

Rock Docs: Pussy Riot, Love and Death

25 Jun

Just in time for the hot weather, there is more than one good reason to stay in the air-conditioned indoors. Three amazing rock documentaries are on TV, online and in major theaters this month. In a way, each one of these films poses the same big question – “What is being a rock musician worth to you?” – then answers on very unique and personal terms.

Free Pussy Riot PosterPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (HBO)

There is nothing complacent about punk. It’s noisy, raw, provocative and unapologetic. Done poorly, punk music merely sneers at the world. Done well, it changes it.

The Pussy Riot Collective, a group of young feminist oppositional artists, formed when Vladimir Putin was elected to a third term as Russian President amid allegations of fraud. Dressed in their subversive uniform of “masks, dresses and musical instruments,” their songs challenged Putin and his repressive social policies. After several brief, goofy performances,  including one in a cosmetics store and another in front of a Russian prison, they staged a protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, playing for 40 seconds at the altar before being hauled away. Their goal was to expose the cozy relationship between church and state as well as the breathtaking patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a result, three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and found guilty of trespassing and religious hatred. As this remarkable documentary makes clear, they were also convicted for being outspoken and female. After being on display in glass cells in the Russian courtroom throughout their trial, all three were sentenced to two years in a prison camp. One is now out after an appeal (and back in the Collective); the others are still in Siberia.

Watching this film, I marveled at how fiercely brilliant these women are and how their commitment to their art and ideals leaves most Americans in the dust. Catch it while you can.

A Band Called Death (available as video on demand now and in theaters starting June 28)

Why have I never heard of this band until now? I can’t be the only one asking that after hearing songs by Death, a band formed in 1973 by three African-American brothers in Detroit who wanted to play rock and ended up creating punk:

I can’t wait to catch the documentary when it opens this weekend. With Alice Cooper as a featured interview, it’s gotta be good.

20 Feet from Stardom (now playing in major cities and going into wider release)

I adore Darlene Love. I know her best from the Phil Spector Christmas album and look forward to her gig on the David Letterman show every December to sing “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I also love the gals with the big voices backing up Joe Cocker in “A Little Help From My Friends,” wailing on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and blowing the roof off  “Gimme Shelter.” When those songs come up on my playlist, I sign along with them, not Joe or Mick or David Gilmour.

Pity is, none of them – not even Ms. Love, who’s rightfully a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – is a household name. Many of them sang better than the stars they supported yet for one reason or another, they never became famous in their own right. They are literally and figuratively in the background. Given how much press this film is getting, that may change.

Let me know which musicians you’re watching this summer on the big screen … and whether you’re a Junior Mints or M&Ms kind of movie-goer.

See you on the flip side …

Beware of Mr. Baker

1 Apr

Ginger BakerI caught a showing this weekend at the Detroit Film Theater of Beware of Mr. Baker, the terrific documentary about Ginger Baker, the notorious wild man drummer behind Cream and Blind Faith. Find it and see it if you can; it’s unforgettable.

Baker is one of those iconic rock musicians who inspires awe, fear and disgust in those who know him, pretty much in equal measures. He is a transcendental talent and a dreadful excuse for a human being. He was born to be a drummer, shaped by the blitzkrieg and the death of his father in the war into a man who struck out at the world with his fists and his sticks. His first mentor, jazz drummer Phil Seaman, introduced him to smack, a habit which took 19 years to kick. His first child was born despite attempts to abort her. His first of four marriages ended when he took up with the 18-year old sister of his daughter’s boyfriend. His son Kofi matched him lick for lick in a drum-off  a few years ago and you could see the pride in Ginger’s face; not long afterward, he spectacularly fell out with Kofi, screaming at his son and condemning him for having “no talent.”

In his younger days Ginger Baker was terrifying to behold: flame-haired; rangy; bug-eyed; tightly coiled and lashing out without warning like a poisonous snake. Now in his seventies, he is rage turned obsidian: dark, opaque and cutting. His bitterness – over past grudges with musicians in every outfit he ever played for, the inconveniences of family and business partnerships gone sour, and his ongoing financial turmoil fed first by his drug habits then by his love for polo ponies – swirls around his head with every exhale of cigarette smoke. Even his documentarian didn’t escape unscathed: the film opens with Baker threatening director Jay Bulger with bodily harm if he talks to anyone else about his life, punctuated with a blow to Bulger’s nose with his cane.

Ginger Baker angelThe incredible music he creates begs us to forgive Ginger Baker for his multitude of sins.

Baker threw his entire being into his performance. Even when on drugs he was a control freak, working himself into a maniacal lather to serve his precise sense of “time.” Eric Clapton scoffed at anyone comparing him to the lesser likes of Keith Moon or Jon Bonham: he knows his former band mate as a consummate jazz musician and exceptional composer and arranger. He’s garnered an impressive list of admirers, and drummers including Stewart Copeland of the Police and Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers credit Baker with inspiring their musical careers and saving their teenage souls.

Jack Bruce, the bassist and lead singer for Cream, was interviewed about their collaboration – and constant feuding – in a tastefully appointed room in what was presumably his home. His hair was as black as his spotless leather jacket, his demeanor sane and secure. And yet, no matter how brilliant he was as a musician, there will never be a documentary called, “Be Glad for Mr. Bruce.” No one would want to see it.

There is no shortage of troubled rock legends who continue to fascinate, whether they died young or are celebrating their 50th anniversary with Mick and the boys. Yet Ginger Baker’s life story left me unsettled. He has no use for relationships, or love for humanity. Anyone who extended him a hand in friendship had it slapped, or bitten off.  He only finds joy in the midst of performance, and even that doesn’t last long. Now when I listen to his music, I won’t be able to ignore the brilliance of his drumming … or forget his cane slamming into Jay Bulger’s face.

What is the true meaning of our hero worship of someone like Ginger Baker? After all, Lucifer was once an angel, too.

See you on the flip side …

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