Movies about music are a bitch. There are all sorts of intangibles involved in a great performance — charisma, audience energy, mood — that don’t often go down on film in a meaningful way. Then there’s the challenge of getting them done. Chaos and under-funding are typical in the world of music documentaries. Many films sit in their cans for years, uncut, waiting for an injection of cash that may never come. Some filmmakers eventually get lucky, like Murray Lerner, who shot one of Jimi Hendrix’s last concerts (at the Isle of Wight in August 1970) and finally got the scratch to complete Blue Wild Angel for release in 2002. The originators of Festival Express waited even longer, from 1970 — the year a rolling multiband concert by that name traveled across Canada by train — until September 2003, when the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.
Now it’s among three music documentaries playing in local theaters. All of them give us classic artists. Festival Express features the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Band, Delaney & Bonnie, bluesman Buddy Guy, and doo-wop revivalists Sha Na Na. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones unreels the saga of the punk-rock cretins from Queens and the artists who influenced them, including Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls. Nina Simone: Love Sorceress captures the daring and difficult diva in a 1976 Paris concert at the height of her abilities.
Of the three, Festival Express gets a gold star for putting its music in a broader context, giving us a look at the tenor of the times as well as the natures of the musicians involved. The "Festival Express" concerts and film were the idea of promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, who put together the bill and scheduled dates in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary, then rented a train from Canadian National Railways to move the performers across the country, starting in Toronto and heading west. Walker, today a heavier, grayer version of his hippie-era self, explains, "I wanted it to be a party." So he rented a bar car and put a Hammond B-3 organ, sound system, and amplifiers in it.
This is where some of the most interesting action takes place. The on-stage performances by the Grateful Dead — with Jerry Garcia shining and lucid in his prime — the Band performing "The Weight," and Janis Joplin improvising a spoken bridge to "Tell Mama" are exceptional. And the spectacle of loaded-to-the-gills rock stars hanging out in their psychedelic cowboy gear and jamming on everything from "Sunshine of Your Love" to acoustic folk songs on a moving train is unique. It’s also a flashback to the final glory days of the original wave of rock and roll, before tours like this made it another sporting-arena event, and to a time when rock stars dressed the explosively colorful part. Several survivors, notably Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart of the Dead, and Buddy Guy, who provides the link between Chicago blues and Sonic Youth in the footage of his clangorous soloing in Winnipeg, mention that hardly anyone slept aboard the train. "Every time I went to bed I thought I was gonna miss something," Guy relates, "and I’d say, ‘I have to get back out there.’ I never did stay in the bed for an hour." Bob Weir of the Dead explains that "most all of us were new to drinking at that point. We’d all been taking LSD or smoking pot or whatever and this was a new experience for a lot of us. And it worked just fine."
So fine that between Winnipeg and Calgary the train’s liquor stock was drained. "We passed the hat," Walker recounts, "and as I recall we got about $800." The train made an unscheduled stop in Saskatoon to hit a liquor store. "So the ride that night," says musician Eric Andersen, "was a party you couldn’t believe."
And we get an armchair perspective of it. All that partying did seem to take a toll on some of the performances. Joplin’s throat sounds a little dry on "Cry Baby," and the Band’s Richard Manuel’s sweet tones have soured a bit by the time they perform "I Shall Be Released." As heavenly as the experience seems to have been for the performers, it was a financial disaster for the promoters, starting with the first concert, in Toronto, where ugly rioting occurred. Fans across Canada were caught up in the notion that the concerts should be free, so boycotts and protests and police costs became astronomical. Even the mayor of Calgary got in on the act, turning up backstage to demand that Walker "open the gates and allow the children of Calgary to pass through the gates free." When Walker refused, the mayor called him "Eastern scum" and a "capitalist rip-off son of a bitch."
"My answer was his teeth in my knuckles," Walker recounts.
Amid the dust of debt and confusion when the tour ended, the original sound recordings and film shot by cinematographer Peter Biziou disappeared. It was rediscovered in 1998 and handed to recording engineer Eddie Kramer and director Bob Smeaton as a jigsaw puzzle. They’ve woven the pieces together beautifully.
THERE WASN’T MUCH BEAUTY in the world of the Ramones, except for that expressed in the sheer power, release, and unfettered joy of their music. End of the Century details how they came up from the streets of Queens as glue-sniffers, rejects, and petty thugs who somehow formed a band who managed to influence virtually every aspect of popular music. There’s great performance footage of the Ramones from their 1974 beginnings on stage at CBGB to their final 1996 tour. There’s also early film of the New York Dolls in their drag-show heyday and Iggy Pop smearing peanut butter on his chest. But what really makes this film — which could benefit from about 15 minutes less of its parade of talking heads — are the insights into the Ramones’ personal lives.
Singer Joey, for example, was an obsessive-compulsive. Sometimes the band would wait in the van for a half-hour while he climbed up and down the stairs of his apartment building, making sure he’d stepped on every step or repeatedly touched every second picket in a nearby fence. He was also the sweetest soul in the outfit, fusing his love of romantic melodies from the ’50s and ’60s with the tough urban sound his partners created. Bassist Dee Dee was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but what’s clear is his utter honesty. He admits his brief flirtation with rap was a pathetic joke and talks about the drug habit that would eventually take his life in a 2002 overdose, just three months after the Ramones’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and shortly after this film was shot.
Directors Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields recount the band’s internal struggles, including the rift between guitarist Johnny and Joey when Johnny stole, and ultimately married, Joey’s girlfriend. It was far deeper than their political divide (Joey was something of a hippie and Johnny was an urban redneck). They hadn’t made peace when Joey died of cancer in 2001. That’s not much of a surprise, since Johnny (now suffering from cancer himself) comes off in interviews and testimony from former managers and friends as somewhat stiff and unlikable. (For Mike Miliard’s interview with Johnny Ramone and director Jim Fields, see "State of the Art" in 8 Days a Week.)
In that respect, Century is another example of the danger of meeting your rock-and-roll idols, even on screen. Nina Simone: Love Sorceress documents the late singer/pianist’s return to the stage after a six-year hiatus, during her self-imposed exile from her native US. Simone’s fusion of jazz, pop, blues, and soul — almost every form of American music — into a unique and emotionally charged distillation didn’t have much room for romantic songs. Instead, Simone added a sense of grace to vaudevillian blues like "Put a Little Sugar in My Bowl" and reshaped "Old McDonald Had a Farm" into a racial protest song; she also penned pointed numbers such as her signature "Mississippi Goddamn" and "To Be Young, Gifted and Black."
Despite her talent and the brooding, self-confident mystery in her music, Simone saw herself as an underdog, for which she overcompensated by demanding adulation from her audience and by exuding an unflattering and often cruel imperiousness. That comes across in the film. Simone takes the stage with a stern expression, as if assessing whether the Earshot Jazz Festival audience and her surroundings are worthy of her presence. Later, she snaps at a listener who tries to leave her seat during a song. And at times her performance and remarks seem oddly disjointed — an effect abetted by director Rene Letzgus, who aims his camera almost solely at Simone, never grounding the concert with a sense of place.
Nonetheless, Simone’s radiant power cuts through, and there are some brilliant passages in the film. The best is an unlikely transformation of the ’70s schlock hit "Feelings" into a emotionally radiant work of art, buoyed by palpable pain and desire in Simone’s voice and a breathtaking streak of piano improvisation that draws on her background in classical melody. When Love Sorceress ends, it feels like the aftermath of a real Nina Simone concert: something special has happened, but viewers are left to make what they will of the beauty and meanness they’ve witnessed.
Issue Date: September 3 - 9, 2004
Back to the Movies table of contents
|© 2000 - 2013 Phoenix Media Communications Group|