This year, I was lucky enough to catch almost all of the music documentaries and affiliated concerts at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Each offered fascinating insight into a particular slice of the wonderful world of music, and all are highly recommended viewing. Here are my summaries.
Under African Skies
I think that my only impression of Paul Simon’s album Graceland when it was released in 1986 (and I was a 16-year-old — time flies) was that I liked that catchy song with the cool bass solo (“You Can Call Me Al”). What I missed at the time was how profound and important the album was, musically, culturally and politically.
This is deftly covered in Joe Berlinger’s amazing documentary Under African Skies, with perspective from Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey (who calls Graceland her favorite album), David Byrne, Philip Glass, Peter Gabriel (who credits Simon with showing that there is “a lot more to Africa than suffering”) and Paul McCartney, plus a recent conversation between Simon and Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, which was trying to maintain a cultural boycott against South Africa in its fight against apartheid.
The film tells how Simon got interested in South African music when he heard a cassette by the Boyoyo Boys, and was encouraged by Harry Belafonte to go to South Africa to record — but he ignored Belafonte’s sage advice to first clear the plan with the African National Congress. Simon worked with some of South Africa’s best musicians, including members of the band Stimela, most of whom didn’t know who he was. He amassed a set of stellar grooves from this trip and later sessions with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which, with some of Simon’s best-ever lyrics, got reworked into the songs that made up the album.
There is cool footage of the original South Africa sessions, the triumphant Saturday Night Live performance of the not-yet-released “Diamonds of the Soles of Her Shoes,” the subsequent tense world tour with protests and bomb threats, a concert in Zimbabwe in which both black and white South Africans celebrated together, and rehearsals for a 25th anniversary concert in South Africa with the musicians who helped create the album, many of whom Simon was seeing for the first time in many years.
Although accused of exploiting the South African musicians and hurting the struggle against apartheid by ignoring the cultural boycott, it’s hard to doubt that Simon’s heart was in the right place and, at the least, that Simon treated the other musicians as equals. And while Tambo still seems upset at what Simon did at the time, he acknowledges that the “journey to freedom was not a straight road.”
The Cowsills, made up of ultra-talented siblings and — gasp — their mother, recorded some of the most beautiful sunshine pop in the 1960s, including the hits “Hair” and “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” (think “I love the flower girl”). They played on the Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Johnny Cash Show, and were the inspiration for the TV series The Partridge Family.
But as told in the brilliant and heart-wrenching film Family Band: The Cowsills Story, made by Santa Barbara’s Louise Palanker, their success was stunted by an abusive, alcoholic father who kept everyone “walking on eggshells,” prevented brother Richard from being in the band (he did two tours in Vietnam instead, returning a heroin addict), mismanaged the money that the band earned, and fired Bill (Brian Wilson) from the band (and the family) after he stood up to the criticism of Bill’s mentor, Waddy Wachtel. The siblings had various struggles after the band’s demise, culminating in the death of brother Barry in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then the death of Bill while they were grieving for Barry.
But, ultimately, it is uplifting to see the love that the siblings share after all their ups and downs.
After the film’s only screening, the Bob Cowsill Band, with special guest John Cowsill (who is now the touring drummer with The Beach Boys), played a spectacular concert at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, including spot-on renditions of “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” and “Hair,” plus awesome covers of songs such as “Mr. Soul,” “Eight Miles High” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Wow!
Music Man Murray
Music Man Murray is a moving documentary about Murray Gershenz, who is trying to sell his collection of records amassed during the past 70 years. The catch — he wants his collection to stay intact.
Murray’s story, shot mostly at his store, is beautifully told in producer/director Richard Parks’ film, with lush music provided by his father, legendary music man Van Dyke Parks. A highlight is Murray’s rendition of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” at a singing class, which captures his passion for music and is a fitting summary of his quest for a buyer.
Murray’s son, Irv, has some emotional scenes as he grapples with the impending loss of his father’s store and, he fears, his father himself. Irv also gives his compelling perspective on what is contained on an old record. In a twist at the end, Murray reveals his latest endeavor.
On Jan. 31, after the last screening of Music Man Murray at the SBIFF, Van Dyke Parks played a charming, spirited set of songs at SOhO, ranging from “The All Golden” from his “brunette days” to songs off his Br’er Rabbit/Uncle Remus-inspired album Jump and his Brian Wilson collaboration album Orange Crate Art, to covers of songs by John Hartford and Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Perhaps the biggest treat was a solo performance of the never-released gem “I’m History.”
Van Dyke Parks’ setlist: “Jump,” “Opportunity for Two,” “Come Along,” “Orange Crate Art,” “Delta Queen Waltz” (by Hartford), “Cowboy,” “Danza (by Gottschalk), “Wings of a Dove,” “The All Golden,” “Sail Away” and “I’m History.”
Click here to read more about Music Man Murray.
This gripping documentary tells “the incredibly strange story of the world’s most famous record store,” the iconic Los Angeles store with a staff that cared more about music than customer service, was sued for selling records too cheaply, managed to launch a record label that released some utterly bizarre novelty records (Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, Texas Chainsaw Orchestra) and gave many underappreciated artists the quality releases that they deserved.
The film, produced by Keith Shapiro, features interviews with store founder Richard Foos and employees (including soon-to-visit-Santa-Barbara Wilco guitarist Nels Cline), who recall the store’s worst customer list, berating customers who bought the “wrong” album a la High Fidelity, and the arguably courageous policy of allowing the staff complete freedom to stock their section as they saw fit.
There are also cool clips of performances by the likes of Richard Thompson and Mike Watt & The Missingmen from the store’s recent two-week “resurrection,” plus vintage footage of a Nirvana in-store performance. Sadly, I didn’t live close enough to visit the store when it was around (although I own a lot of Rhino Records CDs); the film showed that I really missed out on a great thing.
Tales From the Tavern
The concert series Tales From the Tavern just kicked off its 10th season. Coordinated by siblings Ron and Carole Ann Colone and currently held at the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, this series showcases the talents of singing-songwriting troubadours who make music that is undeservedly “under the radar.”
The stellar film by the same name, screened at the SBIFF, showed highlight after highlight from past concerts in this series, many by artists I wasn’t familiar with. This included the opening song by Michael on Fire with a transcendent violin solo, Dave Stamey’s mesmerizing Western tale “The Skies of Lincoln County,” Steve Poltz doing a twisted children’s song called “Sewing Machine” and the late John Stewart singing about his time with Robert Kennedy (for a taste, click here to view the clip).
The film also shows parts of interviews with the artists, which paint a fascinating picture of how they approach music and life on the road. Plus, it shows how live music can help us appreciate, love, understand, empathize and enjoy one song at a time.
Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story
Mark Sandman and the band Morphine were responsible for some of the most unique alternative rock music in the 1990s. There was no guitar! Well, just a two-string bass guitar played by Sandman, who also wrote and sang the songs, plus saxophone by Dana Colley and drums by Billy Conway or Jerome Deupree.
This film takes its name from Morphine’s 1993 album Cure for Pain, which is rightly regarded as one of the best of the decade, and covers Sandman’s life and death of a heart attack onstage in Palestrina, Italy, in July 1999. The story is filled in by interviews with the surviving band members, who served as a kind of surrogate family for Sandman, plus Sandman’s parents and girlfriend, and musicians such as Mike Watt, Les Claypool, Ben Harper and Josh Homme, whose band Queens of the Stone Age had the unenviable task of playing next after Sandman died.
There are also clips of interviews with the ultra-private Sandman, including him telling a reporter that he only needs one string on his bass and that having two is “an extravagance,” and a heart-wrenching reflection by one of the organizers of the festival where he died. But the real treat is the soundtrack of Morphine songs and all the footage of Morphine performing to wowed audiences. Sandman left this world too early, but his music lives on.
A Clockwork Orange
A special mention from this music fan goes to a film screened at the SBIFF which, unlike the others on this list, is (thankfully) not based on a true story: the controversial and often disturbing dystopian epic A Clockwork Orange.
The soundtrack to this film features Walter/Wendy Carlos’ groundbreaking analog synthesizer realizations of classical music pieces, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (with the first widely heard use of a vocoder in music), a frenetic version of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture and the elecro-dirge Funeral for Queen Mary by Henry Purcell.
I would rate this as one of the best soundtracks in the history of cinema. To quote the film’s main character, Alex, when he was listening to his beloved Beethoven: “Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven!”
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.