Thursday, August 6, 2020

Muscle Shoals

Year 12, Day 218 - 8/5/20 - Movie #3,624

BEFORE: I'm getting very close now to the end of the big Summer Concert (and Documentary) series, just two films left after today.  Still it's gone on longer than planned, and I'm closer to the end of the year now than I intended to be.  Hey, it's just that kind of year, maybe - the pandemic has certainly gone on longer than expected, the shutdown and the unemployment and the distancing restrictions - in March I kind of assumed the whole thing would blow over in two weeks, maybe a month, tops.

I unconsciously sort of set up the whole Summer Concert series chronologically - really when I set up the chain I was just looking for a good entry point (Sharon Stone) and a workable exit point, which could have been Keith Richards, though now it's an actress I'm not familiar with.  I started way back in the 1960s' with Bob Dylan (even though the first film was about his tour in 1975/76) and then I followed Bob and The Band up to "The Last Waltz", then I moved over to the West Coast for the sounds of Laurel Canyon in the 60's and 70's, then Sound City, then I hopped over the U.K./NYC for John Lennon in the early 1970's.  Then came a look at the Rolling Stones (though that concert was recorded in 2006), that allowed my transition to the history of Motown, then I came forward to the 1980's and 90's with a look at Whitney Houston.

Today I'm going to try to tie that all together, if possible - because it hasn't just been about WHEN this music was recorded, it's also been about WHERE it was recorded - Laurel Canyon/L.A., Detroit, and now Alabama.  There's been a peculiar focus on recording studios - whether that was Sound City, or the Snakepit in Hitsville USA, or Lennon's personal recording studio in his Tittenhurst Park estate, or the basement of The Band's rented house in Woodstock, NY.  OK, sure, we've been out on tour with Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue, and watched The Band play at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and the Stones at the Beacon Theater, but all of these songs had to be recorded on albums first, and I've never seen such an emphasis placed on which studios these songs originated in. This is something of an odd trend in documentaries that I've uncovered, I guess rock fans want to know where things happened so they can, what, make pilgrimages there?  I'll admit that three years ago I felt the urge to stop at Sun Studios before leaving Memphis - and this was the day after walking through the Jungle Room at Graceland.  So yeah, I get it.

One more stop on the studio tour, down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as Aretha Franklin carries over from "Whitney".

THE PLOT: A documentary that celebrates Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the signature sound he developed in songs such as "I'll Take You There", "Brown Sugar" and "When a Man Loves a Woman".

AFTER: I almost forgot about "Today in Music History", selected milestones that directly involve some of the people in today's film - on August 5, 1978, the Rolling Stones saw their only disco-themed hit, "Miss You", become their 8th #1 single in the U.S., though it only reached #3 in the U.K. On August 5, 1996, Wilson Pickett checked into a drug rehab clinic in New Jersey, at the age of 55, after a judge had given him a choice between rehab and jail.  And on August 5, 2015, Keith Richards made headlines when he told Esquire magazine what he thought about the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" album, saying, "Some people think it's a genius album, but I think it's a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like 'Satanic Majesties'".  Well, he wasn't completely wrong - why can't it be both?  And on August 5, 2016, Gregg Allman cancelled the majority of his upcoming tour dates due to "serious health issues" - and that wasn't code language to cover up going to rehab, he died from liver cancer in May 2017.

With that tragedy out of the way, let's talk about Rick Hall, who seemed to have a lot of tragic stories of his own that got told here, between the success stories from his FAME Studios.  There's the story about his little brother getting burned by scalding laundry water, and dying three days later, which he believes led to his parents' divorce, which then led to his mother leaving to go work in a brothel.  That's a lot to take in, but there's more, because after serving in the Korean War (he claimed to be a conscientious objector and played in an Army band, facts not mentioned here) he got married young, but his wife died shortly after that in a car accident.  Then he worked for Reynolds Aluminum and got enough money to buy his sharecropper father the John Deere tractor he always wanted, but his father somehow ended up underneath the tractor and died.  This sent Rick into a downward spiral of depression and alcoholism, which seems to have led to him becoming a traveling musician - yeah, I suppose I can believe that track.

But he really wanted to become a songwriter and record producer, and he did have some success in this arena in the late 1950's, when George Jones recorded his song "Achin' Breakin' Heart" (hmm, I think Billy Ray Cyrus might have ripped that one off...) and Brenda Lee recorded his song "She'll Never Know".  So he started a recording studio and music publishing company called FAME (Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises) but he was in a partnership with two other men, who dissolved the partnership when they learned what a hard worker he was, as they were only in it for fun, and to meet girls.  Hey, if the worst thing that people can say about you is that you're a hard worker, I think maybe you're doing all right.  But by 1961 he had already produced his first gold record, which was Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On", which gained more attention when it was later covered by The Rolling Stones. (The Beatles had covered Alexander's song "Anna (Go to Him)" just a few weeks before.).

By the mid-1960's the FAME studio in Muscle Shoals had become a destination for rising acts, to try to catch that "lightning in a bottle" that seemed to come whenever somebody built a room that had good acoustics - this is where Wilson Pickett came to record "Land of 1,000 Dances", Percy Sledge recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman", and it turned out to be the place where Aretha Franklin's career really took off - she'd been under contract with Columbia for five years (after she turned down RCA and Motown), but they apparently didn't know how to package her or develop her sound, so in 1967 she signed with Atlantic and was sent to Muscle Shoals.  The free-form recording session there seemed to be at a lull, until the keyboard player found the groove and they recorded "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)".  Even though an altercation between a horn player and Aretha's soon-to-be-ex husband ended the session early, the song still became her first #1 single.  Tensions also broke down between Rick Hall and the head of Atlantic Records, meaning that Aretha never went back to Muscle Shoals, but they brought all those musicians up to New York to record more songs, like "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and a little song called "Respect".

In many ways, this story about a sound studio seems very much like the story of every sound studio - watch this film back-to-back with "Sound City" and you'll see there's so much overlap in the ups and downs of running similar businesses, even if all of the details are different.  There's this ebb and flow to any business, since everybody makes mistakes, manages to stay current on some trends, and misses the boat on others.  With Sound City it was, "we were about to close, and then Nirvana came here to record, suddenly we were popular again" and with Muscle Shoals, it's nearly the same arc. Things looked bleak for a while until The Rolling Stones swooped in to record "Brown Sugar", "Wild Horses" and "You Gotta Move". Well, sort of - the Stones didn't record at FAME Studios, they recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, AL, which was founded by three musicians from FAME who split off to open their own studio, let's be clear about that.  But after the Stones released those songs on "Sticky Fingers" in 1971, then acts like Bob Dylan ("Gotta Serve Somebody"), Paul Simon ("Loves Me Like a Rock", "Kodachrome") and Bob Seger ("Night Moves", "Mainstreet") wanted to come to town to get that same sound, thinking it must be something in the water, I guess.
Keith Richards is left wondering what could have been if the Stones had returned to Muscle Shoals, but doing so was prevented by legal and financial issues.  (Umm, explain, please?)

Back at FAME Studios, before Rick Hall's clientele moved more toward pop, as he produced tracks for Paul Anka, Tom Jones, and the Osmonds, they'd done pretty well with that blues sound, and a young guitarist named Duane Allman had taken to sleeping in their parking lot.  Up until this point, the studio had been a remarkably integrated place to work, considering it was located in Alabama.  Black and white studio musicians worked together in harmony, which wasn't typical for the deep South, but working with long-haired hippie musicians like Allman presented a new challenge.  But Allman persisted until they let him play guitar, and he suggested to Wilson Pickett that they cover "Hey Jude" by the Beatles - I own a copy of this track, because I've collected hundreds of Beatles covers over the years, but I had no idea Duane Allman played guitar on this!  And according to Rick Hall, if you listen to this song, with the funky groove, which gets extra funky near the end, the guitar solo actually represents the beginning of the Allman Brothers sound, so it's the really the birth of Southern rock!

Throughout the 1970's, FAME Studio moved more toward country music (Mac Davis, Jerry Reed, the Gatlin Brothers), but the competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio developed the Southern rock sound, thanks to Lynyrd Skynyrd.  There's probably a whole documentary that could be made about the history, recording, and legacy of the song "Free Bird", but it was in a Muscle Shoals recording session that the song really turned into something.  The band didn't think much of it at first, Ronnie Van Zant had stated there were too many chord changes, it was too long, and it was basically designed with a super-long guitar solo so that the vocalist could have a break during a concert.  But at  Muscle Shoals, supposedly they came back from lunch break to find their roadie playing the chord progressions on piano in a classical style, and they loved it so much they made that part of the song, and the roadie joined the band.  (I don't know much about Skynyrd, but this is still one hell of a story, even if it's not completely true.).  The song was recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1973, and after the plane crash in 1977, the band re-released a compilation of things recorded at Muscle Shoals, and the song, the band and the studio became the stuff of legend.

The original musicians who performed at FAME became known as "The Swampers" (or sometimes Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) and they got a big shout-out in Lynyrd Skynyrd's song "Sweet Home Alabama" - the third verse begins with "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they've been known to pick a song or two".  Ah, so THAT'S what Skynyrd was singing about - another rock & roll mystery solved via the power of documentary film.  When they weren't trashing Neil Young, they were tipping their hat to the session musicians of their studio in Alabama.  With references like that, you might start to understand why people like Steve Winwood, Tom Jones and the Stones came from so far away to record there.

But any rundown of a studio's successes doesn't really tell the whole story, right?  I mean, for every "Wild Horses" or "When a Man Loves a Woman", couldn't there be 10 songs recorded that weren't hits, or recording artists that weren't signed, or didn't achieve the same success as Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers?  Motown had all those artists I mentioned the other day, like Smilin' Sammy Ward, that I've never heard of before.  So I'm wondering now if everything in Muscle Shoals was non-stop success, like if they really had the Midas touch, or is that just what we're being asked to remember here?  Sure, it's easy to tell stories about the hit records, but what about the songs that never went anywhere, somebody paid for those sessions, too, which is what kept the studio afloat during the down times.  Everything in every industry is sort of hit or miss, even with movies - scroll down to the bottom of your Netflix or Hulu list and you may find a bunch of films that nobody cares about, but people spent their time and money to make those, too.  I know, we live in a capitalist, free-market society, and it's like some music and movies have the inside track, which almost doesn't seem fair.

But I say this as a person who works in independent animation production, and that's always an uphill battle.  It takes time and effort to get anything to rise in a crowded field these days, especially when you're working with limited resources, and the larger companies can spend more just on promotion than smaller companies can on their whole project.  All I can say at this point is that the production of anything - a book, a movie, a record - is some weird combination of time, effort and magic, and then there's a similar alchemical equation concerning whether the result is going to be popular or profitable.  So this also helps explain why a band would go across the country or even around the world to try to improve those odds.

OK, so now that I've learned about the Funk Brothers and the Swampers, in addition to the Wrecking Crew, I'm going to take a short break.  I need to have some off-days in August, either now or later, to make things line up better, if I don't do this now I'll need to take two full weeks off in September, and there still may be nowhere to go on vacation, we just don't know.  I still have two more music/concert docs, but I think I see a way to line them up with an anniversary this weekend -  so I'll be back on Sunday, and I may as well take a couple days to see if I can write a few more book chapters.  Right now it's either the book or the blog, as I don't seem to have enough time to do both.

Also starring Rick Hall, Barry Beckett, Jesse Boyce, David Briggs, Larry Byrom, Jerry Carrigan, Donnie Fritts, John Gifford III, Donna Jean Godchaux, Tommy Hardin, Roger Hawkins, Tom Hendrix, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jaimoe, Jimmy Johnson, Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery, Spooner Oldham, Brian Owings, Dan Penn, Norbert Putnam, Candi Staton, Harvey Thompson, Jerry Wexler, John Paul White, Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger (last seen in "Standing in the Shadows of Motown"), Etta James, Alicia Keys, Ed King, Keith Richards (last seen in "Shine a Light"), Percy Sledge, Steve Winwood,

with archive footage of Duane Allman, Paul Anka, King Curtis, Mac Davis, Bob Dylan (last seen in "David Crosby: Remember My Name"), Art Garfunkel, Bobbie Gentry, Jimi Hendrix (last seen in "Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, The Band & The Basement Tapes"), Brian Jones (last seen in "Shine a Light"), Charlie Watts (ditto), Bill Wyman (ditto), Tom Jones, Helen Keller, John F. Kennedy (last seen in "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan"), Martin Luther King Jr. (last seen in "Hitsville: The Making of Motown"), Little Richard (ditto), Kris Kristofferson, Donny Osmond, Sam Phillips, Wilson Pickett, Billy Powell, Lou Rawls, Otis Redding, Leon Russell, Bob Seger (last seen in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"), Paul Simon, Rod Stewart (last seen in "20 Feet from Stardom"), Ronnie Van Zant, George Wallace, Bobby Womack,

RATING: 7 out of 10 Baptist church choir members

Tuesday, August 4, 2020


Year 12, Day 217 - 8/4/20 - Movie #3,623

BEFORE: I watched that OTHER documentary about Whitney Houston two years ago, and without keeping an eye on the schedule, I missed her birthday then by inches, I was one day late.  Whitney Houston was born on August 9, 1963 - so I was seriously debating whether I should take five days off HERE, rather than spread them out through August.  Because I am trying to slow things down just a bit, so this is something of an option.  But even though the calendar doesn't support this, I'd like to power through, because right now I'm just watching films from streaming services, and not cable or DVDs, and this doesn't make my main watchlist any smaller.  Once slots open up on the main watchlist (when I fall below the current cap of 180 films, that is) then I allow myself to record a new movie on the DVR - so until I watch something from the main list, I can't add anything new to it.  As it is it's going to be another week before I can record something new, so therefore I'm against taking a break right now.

But if I did take a break, there's another writing project I would like to work on, which is a book about my experiences, good and bad, while working at Comic-Cons.  I think there's a space for this in the geek book market, so now I just have to convince a book editor of that, and the fact that I'm the one who should be writing it.  But my wife has suggested that I'm only doing this as an excuse, a reason why I can't be looking for a better, or even an additional job right now.  I'm determined to prove her wrong, but that nagging feeling tells me that maybe she's right.  Even a few days in to the process, I'm already coming up with reasons why I can't write a chapter today - it's too hot, it's raining, we're out of bread and milk.  So now I have to trick myself into writing a chapter every time I have a day off, which is usually two days a week (four if I count the weekend, but come on...).  I have to remind myself that I already write a short essay nearly every day about a movie, and if I can write a blog entry, I can write a book chapter.  If I can write over 3,600 short essays in under 12 years, then I should be able to write a book, or at least something book-length, in under a month.  The logic is sound, now I just also have to find the motivation to go with it.  Plus I have to learn how to make a book proposal, which is not the same as writing a book.  I think today I can finish a chapter I already started, but I'm just not up for a whole chapter's worth today, time's already running out. I'll try again on Thursday, maybe I'll skip a movie on Thursday since I didn't skip one today.

Whitney Houston carries over from "Hitsville: The Making of Motown" - through archive footage in both, of course.  I didn't expect her to be seen at the end of yesterday's film, because she wasn't a Motown artist, she recorded for Arista, as seen in other docs.  But I'll still take it.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Whitney: Can I Be Me" (Movie #3,018)

THE PLOT: An in-depth look at the life and music of Whitney Houston.

AFTER: After watching "Whitney", I went back and re-read my review of "Whitney: Can I Be Me", and for the most part, both documentaries covered the same territory.  For the most part, but not completely, because the shocking revelation here is the one that caught my attention in the news, and put this Hulu documentary on my list, despite having seen a Whitney doc just a few months before.  And really, I'm lucky that this one is still available on Hulu, two years after I became aware of it, because so many films on Hulu seem to disappear from the service before I can watch them.  And yes, it sometimes takes me two years, or longer, to circle back around if I feel I've missed something.

The footage of Whitney debuting on the Merv Griffin Show is here, that I saw in the other doc - and the famous interview with Diane Sawyer is here, too - the one where she admits to using nearly every drug on a list, but not crack because "Crack is Wack", and also a drug for poor people, and she was not a poor person.  Wow, OK, glad we cleared that up.  So, you're too proud to smoke crack but not proud enough to avoid the other drugs?  Able to admit your addiction, but unable to go to rehab?  That's a pretty fine line to draw for yourself.  What we learn here is that after her friends and family staged an intervention, Whitney's dad let her off the hook and told her she didn't have to go to rehab, and that's when you wonder if the people around her really had her best interests at heart.  Or did they think that if she got clean and came to her senses she might notice how many family members were on her payroll for doing nothing?

Look, I've seen this cycle before, several times in the 2018 documentary chain, like in the Grateful Dead documentary they mentioned how the real money came from going out on tour, only then the band needed to have a company, with staff, to take care of all the tour details, get the equipment and the band and the t-shirts to the next show, and that company would absorb all this responsibility and liability, plus a company is taxed differently than a person, so it just makes financial sense.  And then having a company do all the work creates jobs, and you don't want some strangers taking care of everything, why not hire people you can trust, like family members?  Sure, it makes sense on paper until the star realizes she's created a giant machine that pays her family, and she's the hamster in the wheel that's powering the machine.  Is it any wonder that she turned to drugs to relieve the pressure and the stress?

Look, I'm sure Bobby Brown is at fault to some degree, too.  His unwillingness to answer any interview questions related to drugs ends up speaking volumes, especially when the film also has plenty of footage of home videos presumably made while he and Whitney were high, and they were making nonsensical threats to everyone they could think of.  But Whitney's family seems like part of the problem, too, for not accepting her faults, treating her like a perfect person when in fact there's no such thing, and refusing to see the warning signs that denoted what fame and success were doing to her.  While there's still no concrete answer about Whitney's bisexuality or the nature of her relationship with Robyn Crawford, it's strongly implied as one friend points out that if she were around today, she'd probably identify as "fluid" somehow on the sexual spectrum.  But back then, in the 1980's, people didn't understand as much about this sort of thing, if you weren't all-the-way gay then you didn't really fit into any of the categories, and people also didn't understand that orientation could change over time.

Since Whitney's family came from a very religious background, with nearly everyone singing in some kind of church choir, that would have been another hurdle to overcome (again, if it's true) and another barrier to break down, but it seems that even if Whitney could have told them, they wouldn't have wanted to hear it or deal with it.  They didn't want that illusion of a perfect daughter, perfect sister, perfect singer, to be shattered, and being straight was, according to the religious view, less than perfect.

There's some other finger-pointing here because Whitney's mother was always traveling, in order to perform music and provide for her children. But there's a bit of a disconnect there, because if you're spending all your time traveling, then you're not with your children, so you might be providing money, but at the same time, you're depriving them of their mother.  Look, I don't have kids so I can't speak from a competent place here, maybe a lot of people have to travel for their jobs and they might find themselves in the same boat, away from their children a lot, even though they're working for their family at the same time.  Well, what kind of a family is it if Mommy or Daddy is always out on the road?  Then it's not too hard to draw a direct line from this to the point later in the film where Whitney gives birth to her daughter, and after a few days hands her off to a family member to raise for the next eight years?  Was Whitney being, in turn, the only kind of mother that she knew how to be?

Sure, there are clips from "The Bodyguard" here too, and it's significant that Whitney played in the first MAJOR Hollywood romance with an interracial couple, or at least that's the way it's pitched here.  Kevin Costner said he didn't really think about that at the time, but later realized what a ground-breaking moment it was, kissing Whitney on screen after she stopped her plane on that runway.  He's probably right, you'd like to think that movie audiences would have been ready for something like that before 1992, but it's not the case.  There are some other notable insights here, like I didn't know that Whitney was performing "The Greatest Love of All" so early in her career, before she even had a recording contract.  I thought that was a new song in 1985, but it turns out it was written in 1977 and recorded by George Benson before Whitney covered it.

They made a big deal here out of Whitney performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV in January 1991, which was also during the Persian Gulf War.  I do remember this got a lot of attention, and was a critically-acclaimed rendition of the anthem, and from the testimonials here it seems it made a lot of African-Americans feel patriotic about the U.S., more so than usual.  OK, so it didn't exactly fix racism or make up for slavery, but for a brief time it represented a step toward unifying the country.  But then there was also some controversy after (not mentioned in this film) about the fact that her vocals were pre-recorded as a safety measure, and in fact her microphone was turned off.  This could have been a huge scandal in the post-Milli Vanilli years, but eventually it was downplayed when it was revealed that this was standard practice for the Super Bowl performances.  Plus Whitney donated her profits from the release of the single to the American Red Cross, and then when it was re-released after Sept. 11, 2001, those proceeds went to charity, also.

This documentary then skipped over her other movies, except there are clips from her last film, a 2012 remake of the 1976 film "Sparkle" - but they had to make room for the big scandal, where (in case you haven't heard) that some family members believe that Whitney was molested at a young age by a female relative.  Several other family members have denied this, and Whitney's "special friend" Robyn has also said it couldn't be true, or she would have known about it.  So there's still perhaps a big question mark there, and we can't really draw any conclusions after the fact, except that perhaps it WOULD explain a lot about Whitney's inner demons and addictions, but we shouldn't necessarily believe an accusation just because it ticks off several imaginary boxes.

Then there's the footage from Whitney's "Nothing But Love" tour in 2010 - it's nearly as painful to watch as the Christmas song that got murdered by Crosby, Stills & Nash at the Washington DC tree-lighting ceremony in 2015 (the version on YouTube is after a professional mixed it, seek out the original, as seen in the film "David Crosby: Remember My Name" if you don't believe me.).  Finally in May 2011, Whitney entered rehab again (or, as many people believe, this was essentially for the first time).  This was actually before the film "Sparkle" started shooting in September 2011, but Whitney died before the release of the film in August 2012.

Look, I don't know what it all means in the end, I don't know why Whitney Houston is gone and why Debbie Gibson and Tiffany are still here.  Why is Amy Winehouse gone but Lady Gaga is still here?  Why Kurt Cobain and not Dave Grohl?  (My apologies to Lady Gaga and Dave Grohl, I think...) I don't know why the fame machine grinds some people down to nothing and lets others off easy.  It's a tricky thing, that's all I know.  It's futile to second-guess things like this, and it's also futile to deny who we are on the inside, doing that only leads to greater problems down the road.  So be in touch with who you are, I guess, even if that's somebody your parents don't approve of.  Boy, that really sounds like horrible advice on some level, but maybe it's not.  Most millennials don't seem to have a problem with this, but the Baby Boomers do, and maybe Generation X got caught in the middle?

Also starring Bobby Brown (last seen in "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives"), Cissy Houston (ditto), Patricia Houston (ditto), Donna Houston, Gary Houston (last seen in "Whitney: Can I Be Me"), Mary Jones (ditto), John Houston III, Joseph Arbagey, Laurie Badami, Debra Martin Chase, Kevin Costner (last seen in "The Company Men"), Nicole David, Clive Davis (last seen in "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives"), L.A. Reid (ditto), Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds (last seen in "Girls Trip"), Steve Gittleman, Cinque Henderson, Brad Johnson, Keith Kelly, Steve Lapuk, Ellin Lavar, Rickey Minor (last seen in "Quincy"), Deforest B. Soaries Jr., Bette Sussman, Lynne Volkman, Ray Watson, Ellen "Aunt Bae" White,

with archive footage of Byron Allen, Bobbi Kristina Brown (last seen in "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives), George H.W. Bush (last seen in "Bombshell"), Irene Cara, Bill Clinton (last seen in "Shine a Light"), Robyn Crawford (last seen in "Whitney: Can I Be Me"), John Russell Houston Jr. (ditto), Randall Cunningham, Princess Diana (last seen in "Always at the Carlyle"), Jimmy Fallon (ditto), Nancy Reagan (ditto), Carmen Ejogo (last seen in "Selma"), Tina Fey (last seen in "Wine Country"), Jane Fonda (last seen in "Fathers & Daughters"), Aretha Franklin (last seen in "Hitsville: the Making of Motown"), Marvin Gaye (ditto), Michael Jackson (ditto), Nelson Mandela (ditto), Merv Griffin (last seen in "Between Two Ferns: The Movie"), David Letterman (ditto), Arsenio Hall (last seen in "Gilbert"), John Tesh (ditto), Lester Holt (last seen in "The Laundromat"), Saddam Hussein, Alan Jacobs, Peter Jennings (last seen in "They'll Love Me When I'm Dead"), Matt Lauer (last seen in "Straight Outta Compton"), Don Lemon (last seen in "Get Me Roger Stone"), Julian Lennon (last seen in "John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky"), Madonna (last seen in "Swept Away"), Tracy Morgan (last seen in "Top Five"), David Muir (last seen in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), Eddie Murphy (last seen in "Dolemite Is My Name"), Ronald Reagan (last seen in "The Last Thing He Wanted"), Joan Rivers (last seen in "The Last Laugh" (2016)), Maya Rudolph (last seen in "Booksmart"), Diane Sawyer (last seen in "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine"), Jordin Sparks, Philip Michael Thomas, Mike Tyson, Barbara Walters (last seen in "You Don't Know Jack"), Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne Warwick (last seen in "Quincy").

RATING: 5 out of 10 tracks on her debut album

Monday, August 3, 2020

Hitsville: The Making of Motown

Year 12, Day 216 - 8/3/20 - Movie #3,622

BEFORE: Back-to-back docs on Motown, and I'm heading in to the home stretch on the documentary chain - just four left after this one.  And there are 78 movies left to watch this year, 92 days until the election, and 150 total days left in this miserable, no-good, very bad (but also perfect, if I can keep the chain going) year.  I now think I know who's going to win the title this year, who'll have the most appearances.  It will very likely be a Beatle - only not the one who took the title two years ago.

With that in mind, here are today's relevant rock (and also R&B) anniversaries: on August 3, 1963, the Beatles played at the Cavern Club for the very last time, out of 274 shows there. On August 3, 1971, Paul McCartney announced the formation of his new band, Wings, with wife Linda pretending to play keyboards. On the same day, Ringo Starr received a gold record for his song "It Don't Come Easy", which reached #4 in both the U.S. and the U.K.

And on August 3, 1993, Motown Records was sold to Dutch entertainment company Polygram for $325 million.  Berry Gordy had previously sold it to an investment company in 1988 for $61 million.
OK, cool, some Motown news just as I'm getting ready to watch the 2nd documentary about that label. Marvin Gaye, and several others, carry over from "Standing in the Shadows of Motown".

THE PLOT: Documentary film that focuses on the period beginning with the birth of Motown in Detroit in 1958 until its relocation to Los Angeles in the early 1970's.

AFTER: One of the first stories Berry Gordy tells in this film is about selling newspapers when he was a boy, a black-themed newspaper called The Chronicle.  After a few days, he realized that if he took the newspapers into the white neighborhoods, he sold more papers.  I suppose we're supposed to draw some big conclusion from this, like this foreshadows how he would end up selling black music to white music-lovers someday, right?  Or are we supposed to conclude that he's some kind of genius because he figured out that if you increase your audience or your territory, you get more sales, right?  Thank God he cracked that code, because if he didn't, I don't know how long it would have been until somebody else worked all that out!  I guess he deserves some kind of Nobel Prize in Economics or something.

But the next day he went back with his brother to sell more papers in the white neighborhood, with much less success.  Gordy drew the conclusion that one black kid selling newspapers was cute, but two was a threat to the neighborhood.  (Umm, that's HIM making it all about race, not the customers...). Isn't it more likely that perhaps he'd saturated the market with newspapers the previous day?  Or could it be that white people bought the black newspaper once, then read it, found that the stories weren't their cup of tea, so they didn't buy The Chronicle again?  Nah, that couldn't be it, that would make too much sense.  Gordy drew exactly the wrong conclusion and learned the wrong lesson from his paperboy experience - instead he should have learned that you can fool people into what you're selling once, but not all the time.

Later, Gordy worked for the Lincoln-Mercury plant in Detroit, and came away from that experience with ideas about how to run a record company.  Here I thought that working on the line building cars was somehow connected to the Motown rhythm, like maybe Gordy heard something in the sounds of building cars that later turned up in Motown music, but that wasn't the case.  Instead he decided to run a record company like an assembly line, where recording artists would be dressed up over here, move to the next room where they'd learn dance moves, then down to the next room where they'd record a song, and so on - and a polished performer would come out on the conveyor belt of the factory like a car or a toaster would.  Yes, that's what the recording artists of Motown were to Berry Gordy, just products that were built in a factory.  I could dig this analogy if he was talking about vinyl records or master tapes, but he was equating people with appliances.  It's not really a good look.

There's another look at the "Snake Pit" in the basement of the first Motown building, which is where those Funk Brothers would record the tracks along with the top Motown artists, but the Funk Brothers themselves are in this documentary for only a few seconds - and this really compounds the problems from before, where the top credited artists (and songwriters) get all of the attention, while the studio musicians are nearly ignored.  The pendulum has sort of swung back in the other direction, with the focus back on The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, the Four Tops, and so on.  But even there, cuts had to be made due to time limits, so even though Motown released albums by dozens and dozens of acts over the years, they could only focus on the top ten of them here.  Fans of Henry Lumpkin, Micky McCullers or Singin' Sammy Ward are bound to be disappointed.

So I don't know if there's anything really revelatory about taking a look at why songs like "My Girl" or "Tracks of My Tears" were successes - plus, it's kind of a moot point, right?  I mean, if THOSE songs weren't hits, some other songs would have been, right?  The Billboard chart is based on sales, and those happen every week - so clearly in the 1960's there were people going to record stores every week and buying SOMETHING, it was just a matter of determining what was most popular - and it's all "pop" music popular, I mean, that's what it stands for.  The trick lie somewhere in trying to predict which songs would be more popular than others, and considering how much Motown was putting out, that was basically a numbers game.  Berry Gordy's "show of hands" technique for determining which singles to release turned out to be rather hit-or-miss, as he was surprised a number of times.

Like with "I Heard it Through the Grapevine", which Gordy and Smokey Robinson make a $100 bet over which version came first - Marvin Gaye's or the California Raisins'.  Just kidding.  Smokey swears it was Gladys Knight's version, but Berry says it must have been Marvin's.  In a way, they're BOTH right, because Marvin Gaye recorded it first, but Gladys Knight & The Pips released it first (September 1967), and the song went all the way up to #2.  That's when the songwriter asked Berry Gordy if he could shop it around to other artists, and if you listen to the Gladys Knight version, you may understand why.  It's too fast, it's got a weird rhythm and it sounds like even Gladys doesn't know when each line is supposed to start.  Then the song got re-recorded with Marvin Gaye, only they slowed it down and made it more soulful and funky, and not fast and frenetic, and it was released again on Marvin Gaye's 1968 album "In the Groove", then became a #1 single at last. But the story doesn't end there, because Creedence Clearwater Revival then ruined the song in 1970, but this documentary conveniently leaves out any cover versions made by white people.

Gordy makes a point of trotting out the white A&R and sales guys who worked for Motown for decades, so it almost feels like he's trying to get out ahead of some discrimination charges or something.  Or he's ticking off the boxes here - "Let's see, I mentioned the Funk Brothers, I proved that some white people worked for Motown, what's next?"  I was willing to believe that he wasn't going to mention his 5-year relationship with Diana Ross, but it seems maybe his lawyers told him he had to get out ahead of that story, too.  How is that not a conflict of interest, if he's sleeping with one of the top named artists on his roster?  How does he not favor her over other artists, if that's the case? This is probably the reason why nobody knew about the relationship, right?  Yet he brings it up in order to show how Motown was just "one big family".  Fine, but it seems like there's a lot of hanky-panky that went on in that family...

And then we come to the company's move to Los Angeles, which was decried in yesterday's film by the Detroit session musicians who didn't want to move to the West Coast. According to them, they got no notice, just a sign on the studio door one day that there'd be no recording, and we'll see you in L.A. if you can afford the plane fare.  But in THIS film, all we see are the positives, which involved strategic relocation and re-structuring of the business to properly create corporate synergy with the other entertainment holdings and properties in the cinematic media universe.  Which is business language that roughly translates to: "I'm moving to sunny Hollywood, enjoy your Detroit winters, guys!"

I would say there's two sides to every story, naturally, but this documentary really only wants to show you one of them.  Motown was everything that was good and right in the universe, and Berry Gordy had the Midas touch, and apparently never made any mistakes, except the things he got wrong turned out to be hit records anyway, so there you go.  After all, he turned Michael Jackson into a hit machine, and the only cost was his childhood, so what possible bad ramifications could have come from that?

And while I thought it was very crass of "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" to end their documentary with gunshots and fading to black to symbolize Lennon's shooting, to not mention at all the tragic endings that some Motown stars came to seems almost worse.  The way they discussed Marvin Gaye it seemed like maybe he's still alive somewhere, still out on tour or enjoying his retirement.  Umm, that's not the case, and see also: Florence Ballard, David Ruffin.  Just saying.

Also starring Berry Gordy, Martha Reeves, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, Otis Williams, Mary Wilson (all carrying over from "Standing in the Shadows of Motown"), Barney Ales, Shelly Berger, Brenda Boyce, Lee Daniels, Lamont Dozier, Dr. Dre (last seen in "Straight Outta Compton"), Jamie Foxx (last seen in "Baby Driver"), Jackie Jackson, Jermaine Jackson (last seen in "Leaving Neverland"), Marlon Jackson, Tito Jackson, Kevin "Coach K" Lee, John Legend (last seen in "Between Two Ferns: The Movie"), Miller London, Little Richard (last seen in "Quincy"), Claudette Robinson, Valerie Simpson, Sam Smith, Mickey Stevenson, Adam White, Neil Young (last seen in "Sound City")

with archive footage of Muhammad Ali (last seen in "Richard Jewell"), Nick Ashford, Florence Ballard, Mike Douglas (last seen in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"), Martin Luther King Jr. (ditto), Nelson Mandela (last seen in "Quincy"), Aretha Franklin (ditto), Whitney Houston (last seen in "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives"), George Harrison (also carrying over from "Standing in the Shadows of Motown"), John Lennon (ditto), Paul McCartney (ditto), Ringo Starr (ditto), Diana Ross (ditto), Michael Jackson (last seen in "Always at the Carlyle"), Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight, Michael Lovesmith, Barack Obama (last seen in "David Crosby: Remember My Name"), Maxine Powell, Richard Pryor (last seen in "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic"), Lionel Richie (last seen in "Leaving Neverland"), David Ruffin, Ed Sullivan (last seen in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"), Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells, Norman Whitfield, Oprah Winfrey (last seen in "Jane Fonda in Five Acts").

RATING: 5 out of 10 family members working for the company

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Year 12, Day 215 - 8/2/20 - Movie #3,621

BEFORE: Mick Jagger carries over from "Shine a Light", via archive footage, but that's OK, because it highlights my reasoning behind scheduling things this way - the Rolling Stones were known early on for doing covers of (ripping off, some would say) Motown songs like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", "Just My Imagination" and "My Girl", so I'm using that as a sort of point of connection.  The Beatles, meanwhile, had covered "Please Mr. Postman", "You Really Got a Hold on Me", and "Money (That's What I Want)".

Turnabout is fair play, though, and when the Beatles and Stones had hit big with songs they wrote themselves, eventually the Motown artists did their own versions of Beatles songs, that much I can confirm, because for a long while I collected covers of rock songs, mostly Beatles, and those Lennon/McCartney songs were covered in every genre, from R&B to country to classical to heavy metal.  Then there were the downright weird covers, I've got those too.

I've got a few albums with cover versions of Rolling Stones songs, too - artists like Otis Redding ("Satisfaction"), Aretha Franklin ("You Can't Always Get What You Want"), Ike & Tina Turner ("Under My Thumb") and Little Richard ("Brown Sugar") doing Stones songs.  That seems only fair, right?

Another connection, the Rolling Stones had a song called "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?" - which seems to tie right in with the title of today's film.  Well, that's how my mind works when it makes up the schedule.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Wrecking Crew!" (Movie #3,030)

THE PLOT: Documentary about the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit musicians who backed up dozens of Motown artists.

AFTER: This edition of Today in Music History focuses on James Jamerson, who died on August 2, 1983.  Jamerson was one of the Funk Brothers, played on hundreds of hits like "You Can't Hurry Love", "My Girl" and "Dancing in the Streets".  And what's the first thing you hear in the song "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"? (Either version - Gladys Knight's or Marvin Gaye's)  Yep, that's James Jamerson on the bass.  Jamerson played bass on 23 number one hits, which is only topped by Paul McCartney.  And the biography of Jamerson was part of the book that inspired this whole film.

This film was released in 2002, so it might have been the trendsetter, I'm not sure - since it combines a straight documentary format with a special concert featuring the Funk Brothers teaming act with some of today's musical artists to create a new hybrid thing.  I mean, the concert's a hybrid but the film is also a hybrid, because clearly somebody either felt that nobody watches documentaries any more, or they saw an opportunity to let the Funk Brothers re-unite and play again, and that was just too good to pass up.  And then this set off a wave of documentaries about music that tried to copy the same format - "Sound City" and "Echo in the Canyon" are the ones from recent memory, but I have a feeling there are probably others.  The theory probably goes that anybody can make a "talking heads" style doc, but if you can give the audience something new, something they can't see in any other documentary, maybe your film has added value and can stand out from the pack.

I'm sure those in the know on docs will regard this as a glaring omission, the fact that I didn't watch this film two years ago when I was covering similar topics, yet I found time to watch "The Wrecking Crew!", which is just the white classic-rock version of the same story, and "20 Feet from Stardom", which was the back-up singer version of the same story.  So there's something fundamental about the story here, which is that industry-wide, there's a problem with session people getting credited for their contributions to music.  And it's not (just) a racial thing - it would be very easy to tell this story if it were only white people profiting from the work of black musicians, but that doesn't seem to fully cover it, and therefore the story becomes more complicated.  Motown was a record label founded by an African-American man, Berry Gordy, so this then falls under the heading of black-on-black crime, right?

Don't get me wrong, as mentioned above rock musicians have been stealing moves and riffs from black musicians since the days of Elvis Presley and probably even before that, so I guess in a sense that set the tone, the standard rules created regarding royalties and credits were designed from the start to screw the little guy, regardless of color.  That sounds incredibly unfair, but do we take some small solace in the fact that some of the people who got screwed over the years, some of the Funk Brothers even, were in fact white?  The industry turned out to be fair in its unfairness, some kind of equal opportunity destroyer.

But while we're on the subject of being fair, with all the inequities and unfair business practices that I'm guessing took place at ALL the record companies, not just Motown, I'd like to look at this for just one minute from the record executive's point of view.  To start with, the goal was to run a business, and that means turning a profit.  That means making a hit record as cheaply as possible, getting the songs recorded quickly and easily and into the record stores quickly, before the last hit can start falling down the charts.  And fighting that battle every day, every week, means there are going to be casualties, especially in the trenches.  What was a higher priority, making sure that every single musician got credited for their work, or getting the vinyl pressed and on to the trucks for delivery to the record stores?

As far as I can tell, these musicians all got paid, plus some of them went out on tour with Marvin Gaye or as part of the famous Motortown Revue.  And the re-enactments shown and stories told here seem to imply they were having a pretty good time.  So where's the harm?  I guess in the fact that very few people knew who they were?  Well, that's the difference between being a headliner and a back-up or studio musician, isn't it?  It's Marvin Gaye's recording of "What's Going On", not "Marvin Gaye and the Funk Brothers with James Jamerson on bass with a special performance by Eli Fontaine on the soprano sax" - that would never fit on the album's liner notes, let alone that tiny circle space in the middle of the record.  So let's face it, the game was rigged from the start here.

The film industry is really not much different, there are dozens or even hundreds of people who appear in the background crowd scenes of a movie, should every single one get listed in the IMDB?  Where do you draw that line?  The production companies do their best, but for a big-budget film like "Avengers: Endgame" with a dozen special-effects companies involved, the closing credits takes ten minutes to watch, and who's going to sit there and watch that whole crawl after they've just spent nearly three hours sitting in a theater seat without a bathroom break?  When I was a kid I'd sit and watch the ENTIRE credits of a "Star Wars" film, just because I loved the franchise so much, I wanted to read every name and hear all the closing music, and this was BEFORE the trend of putting cut scenes at the very very end to reward the faithful.  The ushers in the theater probably thought I was a freak, they just wanted me gone so they could finish sweeping the theater and start seating people for the next show.

Ideally, sure, we should know the name of everyone who made a major contribution to every song and every movie, but what constitutes a "major" contribution?  This leads back to that argument that The Band had - if a Band member contributed a riff or a drumbeat, should they get songwriting credit?  Or is that more "arranging" than "composing"?  I don't have a solid answer here, because there are very gray areas once you get into that sealed-off sound studio.  I've done voices myself for animated films, and sometimes I was allowed to play around with the lines or how the lines were said.  Does that make me a "writer"?  Should I be credited as such?  I could raise a fuss over this, but what would be the point?  Take a movie like the first "Aladdin" movie from Disney - should Robin Williams get a screenwriting credit if he improvised some of The Genie's lines?  It's debatable, but it's also notable that it didn't happen.

So I think most of the decisions that failed to credit the Funk Brothers were business decisions, and those aren't necessarily bad or good, they're the decisions made at the time with an eye on the bottom line.  This subject is sort of at the tip of my brain right now because I'm trying to write (and pitch) a book about my years of working at the two big Comic-Cons, in San Diego and New York.  This is what sort of puts me in the same boat as the Funk Brothers - I don't really receive credit on a public scale for the work I've done there, but I did get paid, and I felt my work was important on some level.  (So where's MY documentary?). As I think back on so many of the decisions, big and little, that were made, so many were motivated by that bottom line - cashing in my SkyMiles every year for a free flight, staying at crappy hostels instead of comfortable hotels, paying for meals myself, shipping out enough merchandise to make money but not so much that we'd have to ship it back.  Those decisions were all designed to try to increase the booth's chances of turning a profit.  I remember one year where I called it JUST right - my boss took most of the merchandise left in the booth with him up to Portland after, where he was doing a show, leaving me with JUST enough books and DVDs to get through the last day.  I think we sold nearly everything except for ONE BOOK, but it was the rarest of times that I could just put the unsold merch into my bag with our booth supplies and just walk away.  Legendary.

For the Funk Brothers, things sort of mostly ended when Berry Gordy moved the whole operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 - a few of those session guys moved out west, but by all accounts, that didn't take, which is where some of the Wrecking Crew members entered the Motown story, and some would say that's when Motown stopped being Motown.  Whether you're in the music business, the film business, it doesn't matter, the advice is the same - start saving your money, because you never know when the industry's going to change or go through a technological revolution (or a pandemic's going to hit), and so really, there's no job security anywhere.  Sad but true.

This isn't really my kind of music, but then again it kind of is, because these songs got SO ingrained into American culture - so sure, I know most of them, but it's not the music that I tend to gravitate toward or listen to in my spare time.  I realize they're important to a lot of people, but I'm more of a classic rock guy, I'll try to not let that impact too much on my rating.  Obviously, if you're a big fan of Joan Osborne or Gerald Levert or Bootsy Collins and you want to hear them singing on a classic Motown song backed up by the Funk Brothers, then this will be right up your alley.

Also starring Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Bootsy Collins (last seen in "Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown"), Ben Harper, Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan, Gerald Levert, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Dennis Coffey, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland, Steve Jordan (last seen in "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll"), Martha Reeves, Tom Scott, Alan Slutsky, Don Was, Otis Williams, the voice of Andre Braugher (last seen in "Poseidon")

with archive footage of Richard "Pistol" Allen, Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, Florence Ballard, Ruth Brown, Fats Domino (last seen in "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band"), Dwight Eisenhower (last seen in "Get Me Roger Stone"), Marvin Gaye (last seen in "Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall"), Berry Gordy (ditto), George Harrison (last seen in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"), John Lennon (ditto), Paul McCartney (ditto), Ringo Starr (ditto), Billie Holiday (last seen in "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan"), Louis Jordan, Elvis Presley (last seen in "27: Gone Too Soon"), Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross (last seen in "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic"), Sly Stone, Big Joe Turner, Mary Wilson, Stevie Wonder (also last seen in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon").

RATING: 6 out of 10 guitar pedals

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Shine a Light

Year 12, Day 214 - 8/1/20 - Movie #3,620

BEFORE: Well, since this is the Summer Concert series, and since we still can't go see concerts in the real world, I'm going to get back to the virtual ones.  Plus I wanted to start off August with a bang, a concert from the "Bigger Bang" Stones tour, in fact.  I watched at least three Stones concert films two years ago on my last rockumentary go-round, and they were "Crossfire Hurricane" (which repeated the infamous Altamont footage from "Gimme Shelter"), "Olé, Olé, Olé - A Trip Across Latin America" and "Havana Moon".  Those last two concert films were from the same tour, and released in 2016.  For some reason, I skipped "Shine a Light", which was released in 2008, but recorded in December 2006, as a benefit concert for the Clinton Foundation.

I'm still five days behind where I'd planned to be, but delaying this film helped me line it up with some Rolling Stones anniversaries, according to "Today in Rock History".  On August 1, 1994, The Rolling Stones turned down an invitation from President Bill Clinton to play at the White House.  Well, I guess they made up for that in 2006 by letting Clinton introduce their show at the Beacon Theater. On August 1, 2013, the Stones charted their 50th LP on the Billboard 200 albums chart when "Hyde Park Live" debuted at #19.

Also, you won't see this in the history books, but the insiders will know this one - August 1, 2006 was the day that Keith Richards fell off the branch of a dead tree in Fiji, and suffered a head injury.  He died the next day, but his reanimated corpse continued to tour with the Stones and play guitar for...well, it's been 14 years now and counting.  So that's a sad story, but it kind of has a happy ending, right?

Dick Cavett carries over from "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" via archive footage.  I hate to make a connection like this, through archive footage alone, but it still counts.  I could have scheduled this one before based on appearances of Martin Scorsese, but I didn't want to break up the flow with Bob Dylan movies leading in to movies about The Band.  Anyway, Scorsese also directed "Rolling Thunder Revue" and "The Last Waltz", and I wanted to get one more rock doc from Marty in here before I get back to fiction films.

THE PLOT: A career-spanning documentary on The Rolling Stones, with concert footage from their "A Bigger Bang" tour.

AFTER: Perhaps the reason that I skipped this film two years ago, when I watched the other Stones concert films, was that it wasn't available - not for free, anyway.  It's still $3.99 to rent this one on AmazonPrime, and it's $3.99 on iTunes, too.  But I watched it today for FREE on - and maybe you can, too, if you want to play along at home.  Sometimes I just don't understand the pricing structure on streaming platforms - does it make sense to charge money for a movie on one site and then give it away on another?  Why would anyone pay for something that they can get for free?  How would a store in the real world stay in business if the store down the street was giving away the same product it was selling?  And why do I have to Google search every movie online just to compare prices?  Why can't I just see the movie I want, when I want it, and know where to look for it?  One day somebody's going to organize the internet properly in a way that makes sense - this is long overdue.

Early in the film, during the set-up portion, there seems to be much debate over the set-list.  Which songs are the Stones going to play?  (Umm, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say probably "Start Me Up" and "Satisfaction", call me crazy.). But I guess the director, Scorsese, needed to know what song was going to be FIRST out of the gate, so he could start telling the camera operators what to do, whether to open on Keith's guitar solo or Mick coming out on stage like a model at a Paris runway show.  It's important, sure, but they just happened to have a camera RIGHT THERE when the director gets the final set-list, mere moments before the concert starts?  After watching "Rolling Thunder Revue" I now don't know whether to trust Scorsese when he's making a concert film, because this seems like a very set-up sort of moment to include.  Maybe he didn't get the set list early enough according to his arbitrary schedule, and he wanted to include a jab at Jagger for taking so damn long.

There also seemed to be a concern during set up about the lights that were needed for the IMAX shoot at the Beacon Theater.  Because we really needed every single wrinkle in Mick and Keith's faces to be well lit, I get that.  But the fear was, apparently, that too much light would somehow burn Jagger up, and he'd crumble to dust like a 3,000 year old mummy if you took away the mystical scarab that brought it back to life.  OK, this does sound a bit believable, I'll admit.  But let's get real, these men have hides like leather by now, and they're dressed like the outcasts from a "Mad Max" movie, all overcoats and scarves, so I think they're going to be OK under the harsh lighting - you just can't take these guys down, I think they could even go like a week without water if they needed to.

I'm not saying the Stones are old, but I think if you added up the ages of everyone who was in the audience at this Beacon Theater concert, would that total be greater than the combined ages of the four original Rolling Stones on the stage?  I mean, there were a LOT of people in this audience, but most of them seemed to be in their twenties, so it may be a wash.  And if you saw Charlie Watts at a senior living center, even if he was playing the drums at that senior center, outside of the context of a Rolling Stones concert, you'd probably just assume that he lived there, right?  And again, this was back in 2006, they've added another 14 years since then, and they're still going.  Jagger had some kind of heart valve surgery last year, then posted a video of him doing some signature moves, I guess to prove he was ready to go on tour again.  Did that happen before Covid-19 shut down all rock and roll touring, in addition to all movie production?  I'm not sure.  Maybe the Stones are really done this time, because even if concerts start up again, they're all in that high-risk age group.

But let's get back to the set list for a minute.  They went for some deep cuts here, some from "Exile on Main St." that I didn't know, like "Loving Cup" and "All Down the Line", and "Far Away Eyes" and "Some Girls" from the album, umm, "Some Girls".  Yes, I'm sort of outing myself as a casual Stones fan, again I have all their Greatest Hits albums, plus only "Steel Wheels" and "Stripped", the latter of which was their version of the "Unplugged" trend that was very popular in the late 90's and early 2000's. ("Stripped" contains their cover of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", and I go back and forth over whether this was incredibly ironic, or extremely appropriate.  But the lesser-known Stones songs that I know are all on "Stripped", like "Slipping Away", "The Spider and the Fly" and "Sweet Virginia".).

I didn't know "You Got the Silver", either, but that one has Keith singing lead, so there's the explanation for that.  Jagger needed more breaks, I guess?  Did he get tired jumping around during "She's So Hot", which I think was a solo hit for Jagger, released during that break-up period known affectionately as World War III?  I guess those Jagger/Richards peace accords were successful after all, which is why solo material (though co-written by both parties) was included here.  There were nods to Muddy Waters ("Champagne & Reefer", with Buddy Guy as a guest) and The Temptations ("Just My Imagination").  I can't say that I enjoyed the weird harmonies that Christina Aguilera was generating on "Live With Me" - Jack White did a much better job getting in synch with Jagger on "Loving Cup".

All this kind of goes to explain why there was no room for "Gimme Shelter"?  That seems like a damn shame - after "Sympathy for the Devil" that's one of my favorites to hear in a Stones concert.  Plus it's been featured in nearly every Martin Scorsese movie, from "Goodfellas" to "The Departed", right?  It's really odd that it wasn't in this one.  Personally, I'd prefer "Gimme Shelter" over "Shattered", "Tumbing Dice" or any of those deeper cuts, but I guess you can't have everything.

Still, it's a killer concert captured in great detail.  As I mentioned, many people saw this in IMAX, and I remember all the jokes about whether or not we all needed to see the Stones that large, and in such detail.  I found it to be perfectly fine on the smaller screen - my computer - and maybe a little less scary that way.  Look, I'm glad the Stones were still going strong in their early 60's, and if I do the math Jagger was 73 at the time of "Havana Moon", but when are they going to pack it in?  Everyone else that old retired already, except for Paul McCartney and David Crosby.  It's not a competition, guys, although I guess on some level it sort of is.  Just give the longevity award to the Stones already and be done with it, I say.  I guess they just keep on going, because they all have child support payments to make - and Mick turned 77 just a few days ago!

OK, I'll admit I was kidding about the Keith Richards being dead, but for real, this was the concert where Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and Chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, fell down backstage and suffered a head injury on a concrete floor in the VIP area.  At first I didn't understand how you go on and do a show when something like that happens, but it turns out he died about six weeks later, in December 2016.  This accident happened on day 1 of the concert, but it turned out that the film only used musical performances from day 2, so maybe there was just a lot of bad mojo on October 29, right before Halloween - and the 2nd recording day was moved to November 1 because Mick Jagger had a sore throat.

Also starring Mick Jagger (last seen in "Filmworker"), Keith Richards (last seen in "Rush: Time Stand Still"), Charlie Watts (ditto), Ronnie Wood (last seen in "The Last Waltz"), Darryl Jones (last seen in "The Rolling Stones: Havana Moon"), Chuck Leavell (ditto), Bernard Fowler (ditto), Bobby Keys (last seen in "Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul"), Lisa Fischer, Blondie Chaplin, Christina Aguilera (last seen in "Life of the Party"), Buddy Guy, Jack White, Bill Clinton (last seen in "Blood Diamond"), Hillary Clinton (last seen in "Get Me Roger Stone"), and Martin Scorsese (last seen in "The Last Waltz"), with cameos from Bruce Willis (last seen in "Motherless Brooklyn"), Benicio Del Toro (last seen in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado"), Albert Maysles, and archive footage of Brian Jones (also last seen in "Rush: Time Stand Still"), Bill Wyman (ditto).

RATING: 7 out of 10 Friends of Bill

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Year 12, Day 213 - 7/31/20 - Movie #3,619

BEFORE: I'm past the halfway point of the big Summer Rock Music Concert (and Documentary) series - 8 films to go before I can get back on narrative movies, and we're near the end of July, with still no definite word that theaters are going to open up in August.  And even if they do, nobody's really sure if people will even want to go to the movies, not until there's a vaccine.  Hollywood is definitely feeling the pain, since theaters have been closed for four months, and I hear that there are some films becoming hits on the drive-in circuit, but they're little sleeper hits, not exactly the big-budget movies I want to see.  So while it feels like I've been using the pandemic to play a lot of catch-up, once theaters open up again then I think the whole industry is going to have to play catch-up on a larger level.  There will be a rush to complete the films that were only half-finished when the shutdown happened, plus there's a stockpile of films that have had their release dates pushed back several times.  Marvel's Phase IV is now set to be completed in the year 2035, I think.

But I can't change the release calendar myself, so I just have to be ready to adapt to whatever happens in the next month.  I'm going to make it to the end of Movie Year 12 no matter what, and as best as I can determine, it's going to be another Perfect Year, no matter what.  (Some people still seem unclear on the concept, it's a 300-long chain of movies, linked by actor or real person, that starts on New Year's and, with a bit of planning and luck, extends to Christmas).

Like with today's film, John Lennon (and several others, I assume) carries over from "John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky".

I'm going to call this the final film of July, for reasons explained below, so that means I get to print the format round-up for July's 31 movies:

12 Movies watched on cable (saved to DVD): Faster, In America, Blood Diamond, Seventh Son, Charlie's Angels (2019), Serenity (2019), Fool's Gold, The Gentlemen, The Lincoln Lawyer, Frailty, The Lookout, David Crosby: Remember My Name
2 Movies watched on cable (not saved): Sphere, The U.S. vs. John Lennon
6 watched on Netflix: Dolemite Is My Name, The Laundromat, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Echo in the Canyon, John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky
2 watched on iTunes: Brick, The Last Waltz
5 watched on Amazon Prime: Supercon, 7500, Hot Rod, Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, the Band & the Basement Tapes, Sound City
2 watched on Hulu: The Beach Bum, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
1 watched on Disney+: Lady and the Tramp (2019),
1 watched on Tubi: Time Lapse

THE PLOT: A documentary on the life of John Lennon, with a focus on the time in his life when he transformed from a musician into an anti-war activist.

AFTER: I've decided to count this film as my movie for July 31, meaning I skipped a day - I'm going to be skipping several more days in August, because I'm really ahead of the count, ahead of where I need to be for the year.  Some of this happened because of the pandemic, like many other people I've had more time on my hands over the last few months than I knew what to do with - so if it made sense to double up on movies to make my schedule align better with the calendar, or with current events, or just to put the right movie on a big hundred-movie mark, that's what I've done.  Well, now it's time to pay the piper.

There are some Beatles anniversaries to celebrate today, according to "Today in Rock History", so that's encouraging me to move this one forward on the calendar - plus this will be my 31st movie in the month of July, which has 31 days.  So this is just a little adjustment to get me back on track.  According to my latest count I've now got 45 (or maybe 47) movies to watch in August and September, and that's 61 days.  So I have to spread them out somehow, I can't watch a movie a day in August or I'll run out of slots.  I've either got to take a week off in each month, or space the films out some other way.  But that's a problem to solve down the road, as is how to spend my time on those nights off.

But for now, let's get to the rock anniversaries. On July 31, 1968, the Beatles laid down the tracks for "Hey Jude" on Day 1 of a two-day recording session. On the next day, a 36-piece orchestra was added. Also related to the documentaries watched recently - on July 31, 1980, John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas was arrested on drug charges, and sentenced to 8 years in prison, which was later reduced to 30 days, plus community service.  Coincidentally, on July 31, 1967, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger appealed their sentences on drug charges, having been arrested in the previous February,  Keith got his conviction overturned and Mick had his three-month sentence reduced to a conditional discharge.  That's funny, John Lennon talked in today's film about being arrested in the U.K. for drug possession, and I wonder if that happened at the same time as Mick and Keith.

And just last year, on July 31, 2019, Woodstock's 50th Annversary concert was officially cancelled, after the organizers couldn't pull the concert together, just two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.  I sort of remember this, first there were all sorts of companies trying to sign acts for some kind of anniversary show, this one lost funding and THAT one said that the other one had no right to use the name "Woodstock", and all parties involved just couldn't come together to mark the occasion - at one point they were talking to acts like Santana, John Fogerty, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, David Crosby and The Zombies, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be.  Peace and love go right out the window when there are several promoters competing to sign acts to host a concert to celebrate peace and love, I guess.

Speaking about all that, today's film is all about John Lennon transforming himself from a musician to an activist, and the fact that those two things aren't mutually exclusive.  How did the man who sang that "All You Need Is Love" come to get involved with protest marches, just a few years later?  Well, as he explained on one of the many talk shows he appeared on in the early 1970's, he was still a non-violent man, but he believed in peaceful protests, and felt that with the platform he'd been given, he simply had to speak out against the American involvement in Vietnam.  History ultimately proved Lennon correct, the U.S. had no business to risk its own citizens' lives for a war that had little purpose, no clear goals and even less direction.  Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but plenty of people were saying that back then, too, only the government chose not to listen to reason.  Sound familiar?

I can't help but wonder if it's more than coincidence that I'm watching films about protest marches, some for civil rights or against the administration, or both.  It's very much like 2020 is a reflection of those times - however, back then it was a different time, and when a President got caught doing something terribly wrong, something that flew in the face of decency and fair play among the two parties, Nixon at least had the common decency to resign before he could be removed from office.  God damn it, I never thought that in my lifetime I'd wish for a return to the politics of Nixon, but I'll champion his decision to step down and put the country before his own ego, his own individual needs.  Are you listening, Orange Julius?  Nixon knew his goose was cooked, that he was a dirty man who'd done a bad thing, and at least he was willing to admit it and give up the Presidency - so our current leader is either dumber than Nixon, or dirtier, or perhaps both.

But before I could move forward from yesterday's film on the production of "Imagine" in 1971, first I had to go back - this film starts with the Beatles on the top of the charts, only Lennon had made some comment in an interview about how the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, which may very well have been true, at least among the younger crowd.  But the older religious folks didn't care for the comment, because it sounded like bragging, or that Lennon was placing the Beatles somehow higher than Jesus in prominence, only that wasn't really what he meant.  Still, some people were burning their Beatles records, while others were still buying them, and possibly some people were buying the albums just to burn them, which was counter-productive.  (Sorry, old Rutles joke.)

Lennon issued a retraction and tried to explain his earlier comments, but in many ways, the damage was done.  Meanwhile rifts were forming between the various members of the Beatles, as discussed in yesterday's film, and all of the other Beatles were getting married for the first time, except for John, who was instead getting divorced from Cynthia, and had taken up with Yoko.  While it's great that John found a creative partner to make art with (gee, I can't see how that would have made Paul mad) it didn't help when he brought her into the recording studio to make nonsensical sound compositions like "Revolution No. 9".  Some fans started calling her the "Fifth Beatle", when we all know that the Fifth Beatle was really Eric Clapton.  No, wait, Stuart Sutcliffe.  Wait, George Martin.  Pete Best?  Wait, the walrus was Paul, according to "Glass Onion", even though John sang lead on "I Am the Walrus".  George had two songs on each album, carry the Ringo and... now even I'm confused.

But I don't think Yoko broke up the Beatles, I think the Beatles were headed that way anyway, she only maybe sped up the process.  I'm more upset that Yoko broke up John & Yoko years later, when John moved away to live with May Pang for a year, but this film, like yesterday's, also forgets to mention that little fact.  "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" skips ahead from 1973, when Lennon got his green card, to the birth of son Sean in 1975, and then it's right on to his assassination in 1980, never mentioning the year he lived away from Yoko Ono.  Sorry, did that not fit in with the narrative somebody wanted, where he was always a faithful husband and loving father?  From July 1973 to December 1974, Lennon split his time between Yoko in New York and May Pang in Los Angeles, and what's weird is that John stopped taking calls form Yoko in December 1974, then he met with her in January 1975, when she claimed she'd found a cure for smoking.  After an apparent hypnotherapy session, Lennon told May Pang that his separation from Yoko was over, and May said that he appeared brainwashed.  It's all a bit odd.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself.  This film really gets going after John & Yoko moved out of the Tittenhurst Park estate and into the Dakota in New York City, and Lennon started getting involved in activist causes, first was a concert/rally in Michigan for John Sinclair, a man who'd been incarcerated with a ten-year sentence for possession of two joints, and Lennon sang a song about his case - OK, that's really not on the same level as "Hurricane" Carter, but I guess it's a start.  Bobby Seale also spoke at that rally, and before long, Lennon was on TV talk shows saying what nice people some of those Black Panthers are. This, plus the release of the song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", along with the anti-war billboards that John and Yoko financed, put Lennon on the radar of the Nixon administration, and J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI started a file.  It also probably didn't help that right after the amendment was passed to lower the voting age to 18, Lennon began planning a series of concerts to try to reach all those new young voters.

Thus began a four-year attempt to have Lennon deported, with the Nixon administration using the flimsy excuse of his prior drug charges in the U.K., but come on already, all rock stars smoked pot back then, you'd be hard-pressed to find one who didn't - even the squarest Beatle, Paul, got arrested for pot while on tour in Japan, right?  Plus the INS issues waivers all the time for artists and musicians who make great contributions to society, and if Lennon's music doesn't qualify him for that, then I don't know who would qualify. So it was a bunch of B.S., but it was B.S. that they had to fight in court, so John & Yoko hired a great immigration lawyer.  Most people get to call themselves New Yorkers just by showing up there, but Lennon was denied permanent residency until 1976, plus he was probably on all sorts of FBI watch-lists, labeled as a radical or an anarchist or a "peace-nik".  Well, they sort of got two out of three right, but Lennon's proposed Revolution was always meant to be a non-violent one, OK?

Despite everything that was wrong with Nixon, despite everyone knowing deep down that he was dirty and corrupt, he still won re-election in 1972.  (Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself too much.) Bad news for America, and bad news for Lennon, who was depressed and turned to drinking after George McGovern lost.  Hey, perhaps this had something to do with Lennon's 18-month "lost weekend" with May Pang...or maybe he was just tired of Yoko.  Either way, there was no good news on the immigration front until Nixon stepped down as President in August 1974.  You see, America, changing Presidents makes everything better!  It solved John Lennon's problems, and it can solve yours, too!

I wish the film had just stopped in 1975, with the birth of Lennon's second child - I mean, we all know what happened in 1980, there's no need to deal with that in an exploitative manner.  A simple graphic on the screen explaining Lennon's death would have been fine, playing the news of the day as reported by Walter Cronkite drives the point home, sure, but I think that's overkill, not necessary.  I'm all for not sugar-coating things, but why mention Lennon's death and not, say, his affair?  I guess a documentary is just as much about what's left out as it is about what's left in, but I think also a director can't have it both ways, if you're going to take the bad with the good you can't just include some of the bad parts.  But I guess the affair doesn't fit in with the intended narrative, which is to portray Lennon as only a victim?

OK, it's now been a couple days since my last big Summer Music Concert, so I promise to get back to that tomorrow.

Also starring Yoko Ono, Tariq Ali, Elliot Mintz, Dan Richter (all carrying over from "John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky"), Stew Albert, Carl Bernstein, Chris Charlesworth, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis, John Dean, Felix Dennis, David Fenton, Bob Gruen, Ron Kovic, Paul Krassner, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern, Geraldo Rivera, John C. Ryan, Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Tom Smothers, M. Wesley Swearingen, Joe Treen, Gore Vidal, Jon Wiener, Leon Wildes

with archive footage of Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Gloria Emerson, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Richard Nixon, Ringo Starr (all carrying over from "John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky"), John Chancellor, Betty Ford, Gerald Ford, H.R. Haldeman, Abbie Hoffman, J. Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Sean Lennon, Martin Luther King, John Mitchell, Pat Nixon, Jerry Rubin, Bob Seger, Strom Thurmond, Stevie Wonder.

RATING: 5 out of 10 press conferences in bed

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

Year 12, Day 211 - 7/29/20 - Movie #3,618

BEFORE: Let's kick things off tonight with "This Day in Rock History", because there's a lot to get to.  First off, July 29 is the anniversary of Bob Dylan's (alleged) motorcycle accident in 1966 - however, as I've learned in several documentaries, and written about here already, this was probably just a ruse for Dylan to get away from the press for a while, and mentally recover from the booing received on his half-electric tour with The Band.  Plus, only a few months after breaking several vertebrae, he was making the basement tapes with The Band?  Gotta call B.S. on this injury.

But also on July 29, 1963, the folk group Peter, Paul & Mary released their cover of Dylan's song "Blowin' in the Wind", which got all the way to #2 on the U.S. singles chart.  And on July 29, 1968, Gram Parsons left The Byrds, just before a scheduled tour of South Africa, because he didn't want to play for segregated audiences.  Parsons had basically joined the Byrds in early 1968 to replace David Crosby, then left a few months later and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman.  And on July 29, 1974, Cass Elliot died after a heart attack, although false rumors would persist for many years that she died from choking while eating a ham sandwich.

But since today's film is about John Lennon, let's get to some Lennon-related anniversaries.  On July 29, 1965, the Beatles' second feature film, "Help!", premiered in England. Critics reviewed it as worse than "A Hard Day's Night", but I personally maintain that "Help!" has better songs.  There, I said it - but I'm more of a "Rubber Soul" fan, and "Help!" was their album right before "Rubber Soul", if I remember correctly.  And on July 29, 2005, John Lennon's handwritten lyrics for "All You Need Is Love" sold at a London auction to an anonymous bidder for $1 million.

Drummer Jim Keltner, who played on the "Jealous Guy" track of the "Imagine" album, carries over as an interview subject from "Sound City", but Lennon also carries over via archive footage.

THE PLOT: The untold story behind John Lennon's 1971 album "Imagine", exploring the creative collaboration between Lennon and Yoko Ono, featuring interviews and never-seen-before footage.

AFTER: Yesterday's film was all about the recording of famous albums, so that theme continues in today's film, which focuses on the recording sessions for the "Imagine" album, mostly at John & Yoko's estate in Tittenhurst Park at Sunninghill in Berkshire, UK.  Much effort and expense went into converting one of the mansion's rooms into a sound studio, and then shortly after "Imagine" was recorded, John & Yoko moved to New York City.  So was that money well spent?  I guess that depends on who bought the estate next, it would be great if that person was in a band and needed to record an album.  (Ah, it turns out John sold it to Ringo, who lived there for the next 15 years...). For good measure, the non-story about releasing "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" in late 1971 is also included here.

I was only about 3 years old when "Imagine" came out, so I barely knew much of anything, let alone who the Beatles were or what they were doing in their solo careers - that came later for me, after I went through the obligatory Beatles phase in college. My roommate was a hardcore Beatles fan, more than me, and he had a lot of the solo albums, and he turned me on to "How Do You Sleep?", which is a track from the "Imagine" album that's a direct attack on McCartney.  Already this week I've seen the feuds that broke up The Birds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but those guys had nothing on the rift between Lennon and McCartney in the early 1970's.  Hell, East Coast vs West Coast rappers had nothing on them.  To be fair, McCartney started things by poking fun at Lennon on his solo album "Ram", with the song "Too Many People", and having appeared in full-page advertisements with his wife Linda in which they wore clown costumes and were wrapped up in a bag.  (Yoko's thing was to sing while inside a bag, or be interviewed while inside a bag, or make an interviewer get inside a bag.  Yeah, the 1960's were weird, and Yoko was a big part of that.)

You can hear the references to "bagism" in three different Lennon/Beatles songs - obviously in "Give Peace a Chance", there's the line about how "everybody's talking about bagism, shagism, dragism, madism, ragism, tagism..." only really, nobody was talking about baptism except to say how stupid it was.  Later in "Come Together", there's the mysterious line about "He bag production, he got walrus gumboot..."  Bag Productions, Ltd. was the name of John & Yoko's company used for making films, books, and other media ventures.  And then in the Beatles song "The Ballad of John & Yoko", there's a line that goes "Made a lightning trip to Vienna / Eating chocolate cake in a bag".  All these years I've been picturing two people eating a piece of cake from a bag, and only now do I realize that both people were probably INSIDE the bag, eating cake.  Big difference.

Lennon managed to get both George Harrison and Ringo Starr to play on tracks on the "Imagine" album, it's almost like Mum and Dad were trying to win over the kids.  George and Ringo probably didn't care, as long as they got to play on both Paul and John's solo albums, that was probably like having two Christmases when your parents get divorced.  The album also famously contains the protest anthems "Gimme Some Truth" and "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier, Mama, I Don't Wanna Die", plus "Crippled Inside", "It's So Hard" and finally, "Jealous Guy", which had been written in 1968 and recorded during the "White Album" sessions, I think, only they had so much material back then that they couldn't even fit it all on a double album, and by then George and Ringo were fighting to get their songs included too, so as part of the negotiations, John got to keep "Yer Blues" and "Sexy Sadie" on the White Album, but had to give up on "Jealous Guy" in favor of some George Harrison song like "Long, Long, Long" or "Savoy Truffle".  Ringo only had written one song for the double album, but it was "Don't Pass Me By", and that's a keeper.  But why did John favor his songs "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" (terrible) and the co-Yoko production "Revolution No. 9" (even worse than terrible) when he had "Jealous Guy" ready to go?  Maybe it just wasn't the right album for "Jealous Guy".

But you all showed up tonight to learn about "Imagine", didn't you?  Surprised to find out that John didn't realize he had a hit on his hands?  He apparently played the track for all of his friends and employees to get their opinions on it - they're all interviewed here, and every single one of them says they knew it was a number one song as soon as they heard it - so why didn't JOHN know that?  Or were they all just blowing smoke up his arse?  Remember, he was paying all these people for various things - photographer, assistant, secretary, driver - why wouldn't they say they liked the boss's new song?

There's an awful lot of anti-Yoko sentiment among some Beatles fans - but while she's not credited as a co-writer on the song "Imagine", there's clear evidence here that she, essentially, wrote the song.  Yoko had released a book of poetry called "Grapefruit", and the poems mainly consisted of instructions or tips for living that made no sense, such as: "Hide and Seek: Hide until everyone goes home. Hide until everyone forgets about you.  Hide until everyone else dies."  Um, OK, sounds like fun.  But many of these little thinkpiece poems began with the word "Imagine" - like:

"Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in. Spring 1963."

or this one:

"Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. Let them shine for one hour.  Then, let them gradually melt into the sky.  Make one tuna fish sandwich and eat. 1964 Spring."

Well, it doesn't seem like a big leap from there to "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try."  Does it? I think John just took some of Yoko's poems and cleaned them up a bit, made them rhyme, and drew some illogical conclusions about the results, and there's your song.  Lennon later said that he really should have shared songwriting credit with Yoko, but hey, community property, so does it really matter in the end?

I say "Illogical conclusions" because I think the song "Imagine" represents a really naive, almost childlike view of how to fix the world.  And remember, this was a time in history where there were many protests going on against a never-ending war, marches for civil rights and calls for an evil President to be removed from office - but you kids today wouldn't know anything about all that, now, would you. (I'm being facetious, of course, but where are the good protest songs for 2020?  Where's the millennial Bob Dylan?  Where's the next John Lennon when we need one, desperately?)

So as you might expect, some people in the early 1970's had some issues with Lennon singing "Imagine there's no heaven" and naturally assumed he was anti-God.  He may have been, but didn't he have a right to be?  How come some people can accept any religion except the lack of religion?  Or respect a different God, but not the lack of God?  Same goes for "Imagine there's no country..." - did he just say that?  Is he Anti-American, Anti-Britain?  Damn, I love my country, where does this limey bastard get off, suggesting that we'd be better off without countries?

My issues begin with the fact that "Imagine" makes some leaps in logic that I don't think are valid.  Even if you could get everyone to "Imagine there's no heaven" that doesn't mean that everyone is immediately going to start living for today.  Hell, I'm not ready to pack it in, I've got to keep working for another 20 or 30 years if I'm going to plan for retirement!  Live for today?  Man, I've got work tomorrow, and the kids have a doctor's appointment, I can't stop and live for today.  And if we could "Imagine there's no country" does that mean that there will suddenly be "nothing to kill or die for"?  Have you seen the same people as I have?  Even if you take away countries and borders, they're still going to find something to kill each other over, you can count on that.

Then we come to "Imagine no possessions", does that mean that everyone will suddenly be sharing all the world?  Doubtful.  You're just never going to get everyone on board with this, everybody loves stuff. I love owning stuff, I have trouble parting with stuff, I want to own all the stuff.  Plus, there's a bit of hypocrisy involved when the man singing "Imagine no possessions" has an estate in Tittenhurst Park and his own recording studio.  OK, let's imagine giving up our possessions, only you go first, John Lennon.

It's clearly part of Yoko's childlike thinking - which shortly thereafter produced the famous lyric "War is Over / If you want it."  Really?  Is that all it takes to end a war, just wanting it?  A lot of people wanted the Vietnam War to be over, for many years, and it seems like wanting that didn't make it happen.  Oh, you meant eventually, or in theory?  Sure, you have to want something to happen before you can make it happen, but this still seems like a gross oversimplification of global politics.  Artists, man, they're so crazy.

There's even more hypocrisy, I think, evident in "Jealous Guy", which is all about Lennon loving Yoko so much that he felt jealous - umm, right? Actually, now that I research it a little, it seems that "Jealous Guy" was originally called "Child of Nature", and it was inspired by the same lecture from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that also inspired McCartney's song "Mother Nature's Son".  But as stated above, there were too many songs to fit on the White Album, so "Mother Nature's Son" was in and "Child of Nature" was out.  Lennon changed the lyrics during the "Get Back" sessions and the song became "Jealous Guy", and then it became about being apologetic over his failings as a husband.

But didn't Lennon sort of break up with Yoko in 1973, and have a year-long affair with May Pang?  How do we reconcile his jealousy and calls for forgiveness, when it was so easy for him later to fall in love with someone else and take time off from Yoko?  (It's possible that he could put up with Yoko's nonsense for longer than most people could, but come on, everyone has their limits.).  John and Yoko got back together in 1974, and we now look back on their relationship as one of the great love stories of that time, but somehow that's not the whole story.  Many of the documentaries seem to ignore stuff like this or sweep it all under the rug, but I'm trying to stay in touch with reality here.

The most chilling scene in "Above Us Only Sky", though, is a sequence in which a Vietnam veteran shows up at John and Yoko's estate, the man's name was Curt Claudio, and he'd been writing to Lennon for some time, because he felt that in some of Lennon's records, he was speaking directly to him through the radio, or turntable or whatever.  Then this guy came all the way to England and tracked down Lennon's address and just arrived one day, and Lennon met with him and had a conversation, trying to dispel the notion that any messages in the songs were directly addressing Curt, or giving him life lessons or secret instructions, or anything of that nature.  (A similar thing had happened in the late 1960's with Charles Manson and the song "Helter Skelter", and that didn't end well.). But Lennon met with the man, talked him down, and then invited him in for breakfast.  It's not too far of a mental leap from Curt Claudio to Mark David Chapman, but that's how Lennon apparently was when talking with his fans - and some of his fans were a little dazed and confused.

So there you go, we've learned a lot today - Paul McCartney and John Lennon feuded in the early 1970's, Yoko Ono actually wrote the lyrics to "Imagine", John Lennon had a year-long affair in 1973, and some of Lennon's fans were crazy and potentially dangerous, but he let them get too close.  Good work, everyone, I'll meet you back here tomorrow for our next exploration into revisionist rock and roll history.  Remember, Bob Dylan's motorcycle accident wasn't really that bad.

Also starring Yoko Ono (last seen in "Down in the Flood: Bob Dylan, the Band & the Basement Tapes"), Julian Lennon (last seen in "Whitney: Can I Be Me"), Tariq Ali, David Bailey, Ray Connolly (last seen in "It Was Fifty Years Ago Today...Sgt. Pepper and Beyond"), Jack Douglas, John Dunbar, Douglas Ibold, Elliot Mintz, Kieron Murphy, Dan Richter, Allan Steckler, Eddie Veale, Klaus Voormann (last seen in "Concert for George"), Alan White,

with archive footage of John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr (all carrying over from "Sound City"), Phil Spector (last seen in "Private Life"), Dick Cavett (last seen in "David Crosby: Remember My Name"), Eric Clapton (ditto), Curt Claudio, Mike Douglas (last seen in "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic"), Gloria Emerson, Mal Evans, David Frost, Nicky Hopkins, Richard Nixon (last seen in "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"), Jack Palance (last heard in "The Swan Princess"), David A. Ross, Andy Warhol (last seen in "Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind").

RATING: 6 out of 10 eggs on toast