Searching for Sugarman
Sometimes you see a documentary and you walk out thinking if that had been a fictional movie it would have seemed too preposterous. This is one of those stories. This guy in Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez makes a couple of records in the 70’s (Cold Fact, 1970; and Coming From Reality, 1971 ). He is his 20’s at the time. Pretty much nobody buys them. He then spends several decades working in Detroit as a manual laborer often doing nasty demolition jobs. Thanks to the slimebuckets who owned the rights to his music he has no idea that somebody was buying those records. In fact so many hundreds of thousands of South Africans bought up his two albums that he was a legend in that country.
Rodriguez possibly would never had known that, and he never got a dime for all those sales, but for the fact that a South African record store owner, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, dedicated himself to tracking him down. And he did. And before you know it Rodriguez is playing live in Cape Town before a packed house of adoring fans some 30 years after his records were released.
I was fortunate to get to see Rodriguez last year at NJPAC. Now in his 70’s, he’s had a long, hard life and it shows, but the venue was packed with people who came to celebrate his story. And to listen to his music. Because while this incredible tale overshadows the music itself, he’s a quality songwriter and the music is really good. I don’t know why Americans let this guy slide by until the South Africans, and these filmmakers, woke us up to his music.
20 Feet From Stardom
Not just a great music documentary, this is a great movie. The story of the trials and tribulations, as well as the massive talent, of backup singers. Among those whose career the storyline follows is Darlene Love, hard-working, underappreciated and exploited for much of her career. The movie reminds us that at one time she was taking on housecleaning jobs. She rises above it all, builds a successful solo career, and eventually is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Bruce Springsteen backing her up at the induction ceremony. She’s the exception.
There’s Claudia Lennear who started as an Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, worked with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, and was the inspiration for the Stones’ song “Brown Sugar.” She wasn’t successful in building a solo career and now teaches languages at Mt. San Antonio College in California. There’s the story of Merry Clayton, asleep and with her hair in curlers, summoned to the studio to belt out lyrics about rape and murder in “Gimme Shelter.” (A song that was in my head for weeks after seeing this movie.) When you watch Lisa Fischer do a duet with Mick Jagger during a Rolling Stones tour, you forget to even notice Jagger.
While not front and center these talented women did not always go unnoticed by the musicians they worked with. Among the folks who pay tribute in the film are Springsteen, Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Sting and Bette Milder. Turns out that when you tilt the focus at little bit off center you might discover the reason why some of your favorite songs are as good as they are.
Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story
The rise and fall of Stax, the Memphis label that positioned itself as the antithesis of the mass-produced cookie-cutter sound of Motown. Running through this film are themes about race relations in America, about the evolution of the entertainment industry and the struggle of small independents to survive. But mostly it’s about the corps of brilliant musicians who passed through Stax.
To be honest, I had no idea how good Booker T. is until I saw this movie. He also seemed to be the heart and soul of Stax Records even though they had some better selling acts. From the early 60’s Booker T. and MG’s was a mixed-race band in the segregationist South, a symbol of what Stax stood for. There’s also Otis Redding, who arrived at the Memphis studio carrying someone else’s bags, but with a demo tape in his pocket. They ended up cutting a record right then and there. As far as I’m concerned, Otis Redding has no equal.
Stax was founded in 1957 by brother and sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. He ran the studio in an old movie theater and she operated the adjoining record shop. It lasted until 1975. In addition to Otis and Booker T. and the MGs, the Stax roster included Sam and Dave, the Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Albert King and Carla and Rufus Thomas. You’ll be amazed at how many great songs came out of Stax. A few of them are on the trailer.
David Bromberg Unsung Treasure
Bromberg’s heyday was in the 70’s and 80’s. An accomplished guitarist, he played blues and bluegrass, jazz, rock and folk. He played at the head of the David Bromberg Big Band and he played solo. And he’s a pretty interesting guy to listen to as he is not adverse to telling a story or two on stage. The movie has some vintage clips of Bromberg performances and also shows some of his more recent collaborations with Keb’ Mo’ and Dr. John. The latter pronounces in his ever more raspy voice, “David Bromberg is an American icon.”
At some point in the 80’s he packed it in, decided he had enough of touring and wanted to stay home and hang around with his wife. For 20 years or so he ran a violin shop in Chicago. Later he moved to Wilmington, Del., (said he couldn’t take the cold in Chicago and couldn’t afford New York). The documentary shows how he achieves some success in working to revive the desolate downtown area he relocated to.
Bromberg plays some gigs now and again mostly on the east coast. I saw him last year at William Paterson College with the remnants of the big band. He was as good as ever. If you get a chance to see him, you won’t be disappointed. You can get a taste of the film and his music here.
What are your favorite music documentaries?