Reviews Of Paul Williams Still Alive; John Denver: Country Boy; Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me; Blondie’s New York; And Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’
I recently watched five documentaries online, and all of them were about the lives of musicians who were popular in the 1960 and 1970s, as well the aftermath of fame and pop music on their lives and art. They were Paul Williams Still Alive; John Denver: Country Boy; Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me; Blondie’s New York; And Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’
It takes a hell of alot to get me to feel I’m even out on the fringes of being offended by something, but when someone abuses art to push an agenda- be it religious, or political, or philosophical, or even personal, as in the case of Stephen Kessler’s 2011 documentary Paul Williams Still Alive, well, then you know you are dealing with shit. I have in the last few years, complained of the sharp downturn of documentary filmmaking from the Golden Age of the first decade of this century to this decade’s obsession with the vanity documentary- a film wherein a worthless subject matter is accorded great status due to the obsessions of the film director, but nothing is a worse abuse of the documentary film form than this vanity documentary whose subject matter is not its titular name, but the director himself, and his infantile need to a) bond with Williams and b) cast Williams as someone he is clearly not.
The famously diminutive Williams did the usual pop star thing of excesses of drugs, booze, sex, and indulgences that fame brings, and then faded. But, he is clearly not a wreck, not someone in need of therapy, and this seems to peeve Kessler, who abandons all journalistic integrity, and seems determined to annoy the hell out of Williams, a man who demonstrates either Jobian or preternatural patience with his foolish director. At one point, Williams wants to share a tale of his drunk driving father, and Kessler interrupts him to beg for Williams’ commentary on an unrelated and unimportant matter, and Williams insists he wants the story in the film. Filmed over four or five years, we see Williams harangued until he finally lets Kessler spend a night at his home, and Kessler forces him to watch a clip of Williams high while on a television show. Why? As if we need to learn that Williams regrets that appearance?
Precious little of the film delves in to the man’s past, his acting, what it takes to write a song. Here you have one of the great pop songwriters of the last 50 years, and all you want to know is if he feels foolish for being an addict? What utter disrespect. And, still, after all that, we see Williams freely give Kessler boatloads of old VHS tapes of his numerous and ubiquitous television appearances (my favorite was his appearance on The Odd Couple, as the crush of Felix’s daughter, Edna, played by Doney Oatman). At film’s end, we get two tag on facts- that Williams has been sober over twenty years, and that he was elected to lead the head of ASCAP- the organization that protects the interests of musical composers. This last fact could have occupied a great deal of the film, but- NO! Kessler’s personal voids and creepy needs come before his 87 minute film, and this makes him ‘need’ to have Williams be as pathetic as he is- except he’s not as miserable, yet Kessler seems determined to bring that to Williams to fulfill his own narrative. It’s a disgrace, and Williams deserved better, not just in the art, but as a person.
Like Williams, a staple of the 1960s and 1970s singer and songwriter scene was John Denver, whose songs were first recorded by other artists (such as Leaving On A Jet Plane, sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary) until, in the early 1970s, he became a star in his own right, being almost as ubiquitous as Williams. Then, like Williams, he faded, and his name only resurfaced upon his death via plane crash in 1997. Unlike Williams, though, John Denver: Country Boy is a far better film, and clocks in at a mere 58 minutes, or just two thirds the length of Stephen Kessler’s debacle.
Part of the reason for this is that the 2014 film was originally a PBS aired entity, and is much more detailed and focused. We get the requisite biographical information, and see Denver early on, in a folk trio, and so clueless of many of the goings on that he did not even know how to pronounce the word political correctly. We are spared some of the details of Denver’s darker side, which is good, in that we don’t need another drug descent tale, but does short shrift his two failed marriages- especially his first one to the woman who was the muse for one of Denver’s biggest hits, Annie’s Song. We learn that couple adopted two children, and see that Denver’s son- a black man, has retained Denver’s real surname, Deutschendorf.
The film never drones on too long, and its misses can be forgiven due to the desire to cram more relevant information into the film, After all, when one deals with an artist (and, yes, Denver was a good songwriter, as well as one of my wife’s favorites, just after Harry Nillson) it’s more important to learn about what was going on inside the man, rather than the trappings of his celebrity life, such as his wanting to be the first civilian in outer space by going on the Challenger space shuttle that exploded.
Other than this, the film does provide tidbits about Denver’s youth as a military brat, his resentment toward critics who chided his music- not on a personal level but because he felt it derided the people who loved it, and also his desire to retain his given surname, but being hammered into taking Denver (he came a bit before John Mellencamp- who later ditched his fake surname- Cougar). Overall, while not a masterpiece, it does what any documentary should do- inform. And it does it pretty well.
I am a bit more mixed on another 2014 film, directed by James Keach, titled Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me. It documents the onset of dementia from senility in country music superstar Glen Campbell. At its worst, the film is almost too reverential of Campbell, and at a couple minutes shy of too hours the film suffers for this. Yes, his early TV success and ubiquitous Rhinestone Cowboy were intrusions into my life, but somehow he was never an egoist.
There’s little doubt the man was a great talent in his field, but the scenes of him fumbling his music, on a Farewell Tour are too much. It makes one wonder what the very purpose of this film is? A much more effective tribute would have been a career retrospective, based on his art, that ended the film with title cards about Campbell’s illness and decline. Instead, after an opening sequence glorifying Campbell’s past, we are stuck in a dismal present and it’s simply not cinematic.
Talking heads that consists of band mates, relatives, friends, and show biz types, overstate Campbell’s musical legacy (par for the vanity doc course, naturally), and add nothing that the montages and early parts of the film do not already inform us of, and just bloat a film that should have been no longer than an hour- at least if it remained on this tack. Two hours for the art? Yes. Not for this, not for this. At its nadir, the film just wastes too much time with scenes and commentaries that are twaddle. We see scenes of Campbell losing his mind and attempting to harm himself. This is at his worst. At his best, he cannot even find the bathroom. This is not film. This is not art. It’s simply exploitation, and the worst sort, in presumed vanity doc gone bad.
Compared with the earlier Paul Williams Still Alive, no one can fault director Keach of imposing too much of himself into the film, but neither can anyone praise him for understanding how to tell an effective tale, much less possessing the wisdom that the only reason anyone knows or cares of Campbell is because of his musical talent and output, not his suffering. Yes, even celebrities suffer, and despite most people’s schadenfreude, actually viewing such suffering is not edifying for the mind nor the soul. Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me is one of those films that has all the best intentions, but still leads one to a warmer climate.
Then there’s Blondie’s New York. This is another music based documentary from 2014 (they sure tend to feed ff one another, don’t they?), and, like the rest of the films mentioned, it grandiosely overstates its titular subject’s import on American pop music. Most funny is how the band mates of the punk turned disco group declaim they had no idea that Heart Of Glass would be so huge. I mean, it went to #1, and in the history of pop music this past century, there have only been a couple thousand of those dread things, right? I mean, Paul Williams won Oscars and other major awards that were actually deserved, John Denver wrote enduring anthems (no matter how corny), and Glenn Campbell was one of country music’s biggest stars, so, despite the hyperbole attached to similar statements about them, they had other things to hang their hearts on. Blondie had, well, Debbie Harry, and she was one fine lookin’ woman, no doubt, and…. and…. and…. Well, that’s about it. In no reality, certainly not this one, was Blondie a cultural force. They were a three or four hit wonder, then a Trivial Pursuit answer.
But, Debbie Harry was every 70’s boy’s wet dream. Did I mention that?
Fortunately, this rather dreary and pointless little film is the shortest of the batch- clocking in at a mere 51 minutes in length. The whole film feels like a more art house version of some VH1 Behind The Scenes type show, and, like those shows, one has to consciously refrain from chuckling at the hyperbole. Parallel Lines was their biggest album, and it apparently set the band up for life, financially, but it had no legacy. Of all the punk groups that played CBGB’s, they had the least impact.
I mean, I’m no fan of punk nor New Wave music, but even I know that Blondie were lightweights in the subgenre that produced The Ramones, The Talking Heads, and Patti Smith’s myriad incarnations. And, while no fan of Smith and her lyrics, there’s no comparing the addle-headed tripe lyrics of Blondie to Smith’s work, nor that of the other punk bands. Blondie didn’t own New York- not the one I grew up in nor the one retroactively granted them by the film. Of all the musical documentaries under review, this is the most egregious in its overstatement of its subject’s worth, and the film utterly fails because of it. And, the damned filmmakers didn’t even have the sense to overplay Harry’s sheer silk outfits from her video of Heart Of Glass. Fools.
By now it should not surprise that the other solid film in this 5 pack of film documentaries is also a film that premiered on PBS, in their American Masters show.
Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ clocks in at just under two hours, but there’s little fat, especially compared to the other films, and ironically compared to the aforementioned Blondie’s New York, which, at about 44% of the length has thrice the fat!
That stated, there’s nothing earth shattering about this film. No great insights, no revelations, a bit too much fawning (especially from Paul McCartney), and a bit too much recycled footage. A great film would have had people talking (yes, again) about the man’s art rather than his personal life and failings, but, as an introductory offering to the life of the man it’s quite good. And, for all the failings the film mentions, it mentions them as sugar coated as possible. Little is actually delved into about the man and his youth. We see photos, we hear blather, but little of it coheres into a higher realm, a place this subject matter was rife for. There have been many young rock stars that died tragically, and even many in that era, but Hendrix belongs to that Holy Trinity of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison- three titans of 1960s American rock and roll that died in about a year’s time of each other, and all of the three were not only musicians and artists of note, but they all had depth, if one were to listen to them in interviews, Yet, precious little of this trickled through in this film. Hendrix is a guitar god that just appeared, fully formed, it seems. Yet, the savvy viewer knows this is bunkum and wants more.
It never ceases to amaze how so many filmmakers desire to make films about this or that great artist and never seem to place front and center the very thing that drew them to that great artist: yes, the GREAT ART! Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ may be the best of the five films under review, but its top dog status says less of its own virtues and far more of the other films’ failings. Nonetheless, there is enough quality to be gleaned from Hendrix’s life, career, and music (as well as the visual and aural records of same) that the film is still worth watching.
Take a ride with Hendrix and Denver, forget Blondie, grit your sad teeth over the forgetful Glenn Campbell, and praise Paul Williams for not murdering his own film’s memory maker.
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