Wednesday, September 03, 2014

There's something fishy in the world of the rock doc

Music documentaries are like Agatha Christie mysteries. Once you've finished one you just want to pop the next one right in. Nowadays the interesting ones are all made by freelances and they get made because the person behind the camera spins the distributor a line. The distributor, who knows no better, then tries to spin the same line to the public.

The most commercially successful example of this is Searching For Sugar Man, which I'm staggered to see won an Oscar. I turned it off after half an hour. The people behind the camera seemed to be asking me to believe that this man Rodriguez had made his records in 1970-71 and then vanished so utterly that he didn't know that his music was helping bring down apartheid in South Africa and the most hard core of his fans didn't know the first thing about him. If you don't buy that, and I don't, then you don't buy the film, which proposes the usual bogus screen "journey" to find him.

Paul Williams: Still Alive is about the man who wrote the music for "Bugsy Malone" and hits for the Carpenters and Barbra Streisand. Here the director spends the first ten minutes trying to get us to believe that he began the project under the impression that Williams was dead. Even before the internet he would have to have been singularly stupid to think this was the case.  Then he makes contact with Williams and follows him on the road as he continues to play his hits, albeit under slightly reduced circumstances, and to counsel fellow addicts. I liked Williams, not least because he had the honesty to say that there were things in his personal life that he was so ashamed of that he wasn't prepared to talk about them on camera. What I don't understand, and what this film doesn't lift a finger to explain, is how come a man who's written some of the most played songs in radio history isn't comfortably off.

"The Ballad Of Rambling Jack" is made by Rambling Jack Elliott's daughter, allegedly in an effort to get to know him, and also to have him account for his shortcomings as a father. The journey here isn't quite as bogus. She tries without success to corner him. There's an odd coldness about Jack, as if he's only alive when he's on stage, with obvious implications for the people who have to deal with him in real life. Dave Van Ronk, who's died since the film was made, says that Jack should have settled down and been a family man but then we wouldn't have had Rambling Jack Elliott. This is fine for us, as he points out, but possibly not so good for his daughter.


  1. I think what saves a lot of these films though is that the core story is still interesting enough to survive all the 'journey' trappings, which I'm as sick of as the next man.

    What saved Sugarman (for me, at least) was that it was as much a story about the South African blokes as it was about the musician. It took massive liberties in ignoring a lot of pesky facts that would have ruined the narrative - but his story, which I knew absolutely nothing about, is nonetheless really interesting.

    The 'journey' thing is all encompassing now though. The young TV pitch man you had on the Word podcast years ago called this dead right.

  2. Spot on about Sugarman. Seemed to be moulded to fit a preconceived story, and not let pesky details get in the way. Not impressed.

  3. I liked Paul Williams:Still Alive.
    If I remember rightly he didn't look like he was living in penury. I seem to re-call that he lived in a comfortable key side house.

    Who knows what his bank account looks like?

  4. As my old dad used to say, you don't know how much money people have got. You only know how much they spend. I don't think I mentioned penury. I simply wondered why he didn't seem to be better off. He was clearly working for modest fees and the house was the kind of place that would be occupied by a modestly successful Hollywood professional. Interesting also that the film maker didn't mention that Paul is President of ASCAP, which makes him about as obscure in the USA as Tim Rice is here.

  5. Whether you buy it or not David, that is certainly what was believed in South Africa at the time. A friend who is a native of the country became very excited when Rodriguez was due to play in the. UK some years before this documentary was made, and breathlessly told me the same story.

  6. This week, in a night not typical of a Tuesday at my local, The Railway - an 82 year old Mississippi blues-man, Leo Bud Welch - took up an invitation from a pub regular who'd seen him in Mississippi, to play 'if he was ever in Britain'.

    When, after 90 minutes of shaking his boogie, and dancing for the ladies at the front - Leo would have kept on trucking into the night, if it hadn't have been for the closing bell at eleven.

    Some fans are trying to get a biopic made about his life via Kickstarter. If it's successful It'll be interesting to see the if the project matches the pitch..

  7. I agree about Sugarman. Seemed like a nice guy but the 'story' was for me a bit formulaic and contrived. I couldn't believe it won the Oscar for best documentary, particularly as it was up against the utterly breathtaking 5 Broken Cameras.

  8. Artists are falling through the cracks all the time. I'll put money on there being a Wreckless Eric retrospective rock doc within 10 years. I know if Eric reads this he'll probably have a choice word or two to say, but he'd probably be quite chuffed if they did it in his lifetime.

  9. Maybe Williams wasn't more comfortably off because of those things in his personal life he didn't want to talk about.

  10. I couldn’t get through “Sugarman” either. I haven’t seen the Paul Williams film and I haven’t followed his career, nor anybody else’s if it comes to that. But I didn’t think he was particularly low profile. Or skint.
    He wrote a few songs that I can listen to now and again and also one of my favourite first lines, the opener to “Where Do I Go From Here”.
    Not sure where to find it on disc, download or whatever, but it’s kicking about somewhere on Youtube (there’s a surprise).
    It plays over the final scene of the Eastwood/Bridges film, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
    After the opening, the song does meander downhill a bit, but the first line always draws me in. And it’s this.
    “If I knew the way, I’d go back home”.
    Well, I like it.

  11. The fact that they ignored Rodriguez's tour (& subsequent) live album of Australia in 1979 is pretty unforgiveable, just doesn't fit in with the "story", I guess.