(QUOTABLE PICTURES/VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT (77 minutes; Unrated); 2020)
Our impressions of comic genius Robin Williams over the years came mostly from his manic, unpredictably spontaneous appearances on various late night talk shows, where he was a frequent guest, and from his creatively cultivated movie career, where he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was more than just an inspired funnyman in films such as GOOD WILL HUNTING (for which he won an Oscar), DEAD POETS SOCIETY, AWAKENINGS, THE FISHER KING, the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM series and many more. Williams had the kind of crazed, full-tilt energy that was hard to keep up with for audiences and fellow performers alike. “He was a constant spark,” says director Shawn Levy in the poignant new documentary ROBIN’S WISH. “I remember many many days when Ben Stiller and I were watching Robin Williams in his head just GO OFF, and that kind of manic, wildly creative bottomless pit of ideas – that mojo, that ability which was like a superpower; I’d never seen anything like it.”
ROBIN’S WISH (Shawn Levy and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)
None of us had, of course. Although other comic icons like George Carlin had the ability to free-associate and connect different thematic threads inventively, Williams was unique in his rapid fire characterizations (often lasting just a few seconds), his physicality and his matchless ability to adjust immediately to a host’s question or an audience’s vibe by veering breathlessly from one comic tour de force to another. Arguably there has never been a comic artist with such an adrenaline-fueled presentation so consistently, and it could wear people out. As the movie makes clear, it sometimes did that to Williams himself. As we learn quickly in this compelling documentary, the culprit for what ultimately preyed upon and then killed Williams was a rare condition called Lewy Body Dementia, an insidious brain condition that has no cure. Williams never knew he had it.
ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams memorial outside his home, 2014) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)
“Lewy Body Dementia is particularly tragic in the way that it increases anxiety, increases self-doubt, causes delusions and misbeliefs that have never been present,” one of Williams’ main physicians explains. Robin’s wife, Susan Schneider, our primary “guide” for the downward journey we see the icon take in this well-realized doc, adds “When someone gets sick like that, it’s so confusing. It’s not their heart that’s sick. It’s the mainframe. It’s the computer. That’s very different.”
ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams) (photo courtesy: RICHARD CORMAN)
Williams started showing signs of difficulty a couple of years before his death by suicide in 2014, an event that shocked the entertainment world. We hear from many of his close friends and colleagues in the movie such as Rick Overton, Mort Sahl, Shawn Levy (producer/director of the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM franchise) and David E. Kelley (producer of Williams’ final TV project, THE CRAZY ONES, in which he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar). All pay tribute to his love of performing and his boundless comic gifts. There’s a poignant segment on Williams’ close friendship with the late Christpher Reeve, and a spirited chapter on the LA comedy club the Throckmorton, where Williams began showing up for legendary, well-attended improv nights. Some of his colleagues talk about how difficult it was to even keep up with his energy. But some noticed him slowing down or starting to not show up. “There’s nothing sadder than when a comedian is by himself,” says one upon describing seeing Williams sitting alone one day.
ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)
Something was very wrong, and the tragedy this film makes so clear is that Williams simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Directors such as Levy describe how the actor would need to “check” if his work was okay, needing more and more reassurance. He took it personally, thinking he was losing his talent or ability to focus when in fact the truth was more insidious. Susan Schneider, who tears up and talks about how she and Williams met, how much they were in love and how gradually the change happened, makes the tragic elements of the story abundantly clear. “We had unknowingly been battling a deadly disease,” she says, “one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.”
It’s a marvel to see Williams doing voiceover work for some of his popular animated characters, and an eventful trip he took to entertain troops in the middle east ends up being unbearably sad. Williams had the proverbial heart of gold; he was a deeply empathetic person, wanting to make a difference to others while sometimes barely being able to reign in the untameable talent he possessed. For all the incredible work he did in his career, 63 seems far too young to be his age at death. He surely had much more to give, and though the film alludes to past episodes of substance abuse, it’s made clear that he was “sober, not on drugs” before he died. The film does a fine job of balancing observations of Williams by those who knew him best, with the need to explain about this bizarre “Lewy body” disease and the awfulness of debilitating brain disorders in general. Be warned that the grief and sadness hold more sway in this doc than the celebratory aspects of Williams’ talent, which you can find elsewhere. ROBIN’S WISH is an examination of a tragedy, an unexpected shutting of the doors on one of the most promising comedy and acting careers of all time. Director Tylor Norwood keeps matters close to the heart throughout, and gives us probably the most personal look we’ve ever had at Williams. If you’re prone to tears, you may want to keep the kleenex box close at hand while watching this movie. The degree to which Williams honestly CARED is the strongest impression you come away with. And you won’t soon forget the moment that Susan finds a scribbled note in one of her husband’s books after he died. It says, simply, “I want to help people be less afraid.”
(BARNHART FILMS/SABOTAGE FILM GROUP (85 minutes; Unrated); 2019)
Some cities are known for unique landmarks: We have the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and its rich cultural history. Some cities have incredible skylines like Chicago and New York, or are hubs of vitality or historical significance. But poor Flint, Michigan? Not so much. This sad sack of a town first had to deal with GM pulling its factories out and decimating the employment situation, something Michael Moore covered in his documentary, ROGER AND ME. And not long after that? Well, there was kind of a water problem. You know, the color, the toxic nature of it, the corrupt state governor Rick Snyder refusing to do shit for years, people dying, that kind of thing. Talk about a raw deal! This was more like a raw SEWAGE deal, literally and metaphorically, as Flint residents kept asking questions about what was happening to their children and why no one would give them answers about the water crisis in their little city. It’s the difficult subject of a fine documentary by David Barnhart, FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY. Choose your beverage carefully when you watch this thing.
FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)
“The system here is telling you that you aren’t worth anything,” says one of the besieged local residents interviewed for the movie. “This isn’t supposed to be happening in America.” No, it sure isn’t. In accumulating detail, we hear from residents about how the closing of GM plants set in motion a horrible sequence of events for this industrial burgh. It depended heavily on GM for jobs and its significance in the scheme of things. “The plants were really the heart and soul of growth and development in Flint,” an African-American local sadly tells us, surveying one of many bleak landscapes left behind. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to that. When they started moving out, that took a toll on the city.” We get to hear all about how crucial water was for the auto industry, but the water was never the same after the industry departed. Phosphates and other pollutants accumulated in the water, and already aging pipes began deteriorating at an alarming rate. One horror after another occurs: 22 million gallons of crap poured into the main river in just two days, rising lead levels, a marked decrease in fertility for the locals (and rising fetal deaths), etcetera. GM had to shut off Flint’s water supply due to the dangerous acidity of the water and the corrosion in the pipes. And in numerous scenes from C-Span and other outlets featuring outraged officials challenging Governor Snyder among others, we get to hear about the cost-cutting measures that worsened the situation, and the attempts to sidestep accountability for how bad things kept getting. Snyder does not come off too well in this documentary. Surprise, surprise… Distinguished Democrat Elijah Cummings (who died not long after this film wrapped) is shown getting increasingly angry about the awful quagmire that enveloped Flint and he doesn’t mince words. “This is a community of people rendered invisible in a thousand ways. It’s environmental racism!”” he shouts.
The sense of futility among Flint’s residents is a thematic through-line here, though many of them keep trying to raise the issue to anyone who will listen, and a female pastor in the town is quoted frequently. We’re giving specific stats about the lead content in the water, how the water pipes had a “protective scale” that failed due to cost cutting, and the increasingly ill health suffered by residents, thought to result in perhaps 119 deaths. And if you’re not outraged enough, you get to learn about how Nestle was pumping water out of Michigan for its own profit, a development that made the news more than once. You can truly lose it watching some of this awfulness, and the film wants to make sure you get the point. Poor people (mostly of color) were the primary victims of this mess, and Snyder and other inept politicians may have thought the matter wouldn’t rise to the level of a national scandal. But they were wrong. The publicity grew so intense that steps had to be taken, although they weren’t enough. It’s important to note that Lansing, a nearby city, took preventive steps to replace similarly faulty pipes, at great expense. And we hear a sobering stat that “5300 US cities were found to have overly dangerous levels of lead in their water.” Visually we see numerous vacant landscapes, deteriorating buildings, and children in school attempting to lead normal lives, despite the impossibility. You can only feel awful at the fate of these families, and despite a few corrective measures eventually being taken, the problems remain. Talk about a bitter lesson about what can happen in America when greed and indifference hold sway over the health and needs of minorities.
FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY (Screen Shot)
This is not a fun film, but writer/director Barnhart has really put a searing indictment of the problem together, with help from skilled editor Scott Lansing. We don’t always get such an informative, powerful movie when a crisis such as this occurs. It makes you wonder about all the controversial things that go on that are simply swept under the rug or factually squelched before the media and caring officials can take action. The significance of FLINT: THE POISONING OF AN AMERICAN CITY goes well beyond stirring your sympathies for some unlucky people in the industrial north. It’s an awful true-life tale of the perils of capitalism, the crucial (and often ignored) need for corporate regulation, and the way helpless communities are often victimized by cynical politicians. I doubt you’ll laugh even once watching this despairing portrait of the downside of America, but you’ll learn an awful lot. And you may hesitate even more about drinking your own tap water. To think that something as essential and basic as water could be a major problem for an entire US city, well, that’s hard to stomach.
Back in September, I was just back from the theater, having seen EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS. My immediate thoughts were that the film was truly an amazing ride and that director Ron Howard did a fabulous job with all of the archival film footage; cleaned and restored for the big screen, I was definitely taken back to the height of Beatlemania. After the end credits rolled, the audience was treated to a near-thirty minute segment of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert (almost the entire show), which was awesome… with a crisp new “remaster,” it was like being in the front row with that screaming, rabid New York crowd. Unfortunately, that piece of history didn’t make it to the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, as it was used as an “incentive” to get butts in theater seats. Oh, well… maybe someday! The film (and the bonus feature) made me realize, again, how much I miss both John and George; it really was a wonderful night of Rock ‘n’ Roll with, as Ringo said, “The biggest band in the land.”
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, RIngo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, circa 1964) (uncredited photo)
So, by this time, who doesn’t know the story of the Beatles’ humble beginnings? Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six decades, here’s the Cliff Notes version: Paul McCartney meets John Lennon, joins his band, bringing George Harrison along for the ride; then, here comes Ringo Starr, John and Paul start writing songs together, Brian Epstein becomes their manager, the lads meet George Martin, who works with them, molding their sound in the studio… yeah, yeah, yeah! As a lifelong fan of the Fab Four, I still came away amazed by this fabulous new documentary. Seeing and feeling just how wonderful the Beatles and their music were and continue to be today makes me realize just how much they still mean to me, forty years after they went their separate ways. The narrative of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK is presented through, not only vintage interviews of the Liverpudlians, but recent remembrances from Paul and Ringo, plus various other musicians, composers and celebrities. However, the real “star” is the concert footage and the mania surrounding the mop tops. It’s great reliving how the Beatles literally took control of popular culture in the 1960s; one of the things that I enjoyed seeing was how hard Ringo was playing back in the very early live days, displaying an almost punkish verve at times.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, RIngo Starr, Washington DC 1964) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS)
Personal fan-boy histrionics aside, what sets THIS Beatles documentary above others – first and foremost – is the unbelievable quality of the film itself: Not only the concert footage, but the manic press conferences and even the boys simply caught relaxing, is so clear and crisp that it really just staggers you. It was worth it to hear new concert footage with clean, crisp sound, highlighting how truly hard they rocked… especially Lennon tearing up now-classics like “Twist and Shout” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy.” Celebrated fans as disparate as Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello and Sigourney Weaver relate just how hard they fell for the Beatles… Yes, everything from THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW to the Hollywood Bowl performance to their huge world tours and all of the madness that followed, but also because they were funny and talented, met the right people at the right time (manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin would become the two most important people in their professional lives) and had a ton of belief in themselves and in their art. The Fab Four were always ready and more than willing to push the envelope. After seeing this movie, it’s very easy to see how and why these celebrities and, indeed, the world fell in love with them and why that love is still going strong over fifty years later.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (a 14 year old Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964) (uncredited photo)
To be sure, the Beatles released an astonishing number of great, hit songs and huge, groundbreaking albums between 1962-1970… a mere eight years. It’s still hard to believe! EIGHT DAYS A WEEK tells their story quite well and, seeing it initially in the theater, on the big screen, was a huge benefit (in particular, the restored Shea Stadium footage, with all the madness and screaming, was stunning). The film is nothing short of phenomenal; Howard and his crew did a superb job of presenting another – often overlooked – part of the Beatles’ huge world wide success, aside from the string of hits and the intense madness that surrounded them everywhere they went. Quite frankly, watching them deal with the insanity going on around them all the time, it amazes me how they remained so grounded. That Shea Stadium show in August, 1965 before 56,000 people was a game changer, setting up a future for arena and stadium rock shows; that performance took Rock and Roll music to heights never before (and seldom after) imagined.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr at Shea Stadium, 1965) (uncredited photo)
Historically, one of the real turning points for the band was when they rejected George Martin’s idea of wanting them to only do other people’s songs; they wanted to write their own music and, so… away they went. The Lennon/McCartney hit-making machine was rolling and wouldn’t stop until outside business affairs jammed the gears. Still, by the time they decided to quit touring in 1966 to focus their creative output into studio work, they were just starting to hit their peak, releasing a string of masterpieces starting with RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER. Recent interviews with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and archival clips of George Harrison and John Lennon, commenting on and explaining things along the way, really adds to the story and to the enjoyment of this documentary. The film flows very well.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Ringo Starr, Ron Howard, Paul McCartney) (photo courtesy: STUDIOCANAL)
I have been a Beatles fan since their first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, solidified by seeing A HARD DAY’S NIGHT in the theater and they are still as wonderful, their music still honest and positive and still touching new generations of listeners and fans… over fifty years later. As Sigourney Weaver said in the movie, “It was this sense of world music. We were all loving them, all over the world.” The joy of the Beatles’ music is, we can all have our favorite song and our favorite album; from 1962 to 1970, they made music for the ages and, indeed, this film is a must see for fans of all ages. A big “Thank you!” to Ron Howard for bringing us a new look at a very well-known story. He did a fantastic job with this movie, with a little help from some friends… John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Jerry Jeff Walker and Patrick Tourville, 2011 (uncredited photo)
This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.
The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.
Jerry Jeff Walker onstage (uncredited photo)
Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…
A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS
(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)
OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.
Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson on the set of THE TEXAS CONNECTION, 1992 (publicity photo)
Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends likeRay Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.
Patrick Tourville with Ray Wylie Hubbard (publicity still)
Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.
Patrick Tourville (publicity photo)
THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?
PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.
I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”
THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?
PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.
Patrick Tourville with Susan and Jerry Jeff Walker, 2011 (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?
PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!
THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?
PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?
Jerry Jeff Walker, circa mid-1970s (photo credit: SCOTT NEWTON)
THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?
PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.
THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?
THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?
PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.
OK BUCKAROOS executive producers Beau Ross and Daniel Trube with Patrick Tourville (uncredited photo)
THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?
PATRICK:Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.
The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.
I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.
Patrick Tourville, Jerry Jeff Walker and OK BUCKAROOS executive producer Marty Garvin (publicity still)
THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?
PATRICK:I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.
THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.
It was forty years ago last year when a group of struggling musicians with an ambitious sound and an unassuming name released their first album, sending them on a ten year journey of self-discovery and musical dominance in a field generally considered the exclusive realm of rather high-minded and esoteric English bands. To celebrate, all six original members reconvened to reminisce about everything from those humble beginnings to their breakthrough albums, LEFTOVERTURE and POINT OF KNOW RETURN, and the singles those albums spawned – “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust In the Wind.” Those reminiscences are featured in a new documentary called MIRACLES OUT OF NOWHERE, which also includes input from Garth Brooks, Brian May and ROLLING STONE scribe David Wild, among others. This special package features that documentary on DVD (or Blu-Ray), as well as a specially curated CD that covers those first five groundbreaking albums, compiled by drummer Phil Ehart and long-time producer Jeff Glixman.
Though the documentary does feature snippets of songs and rare concert footage, it’s really more about the story, which is fine with me. And, even though the guys rarely appear together on camera, there are plenty of great stories to be heard. One of the best involves Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and how opening act Kansas thwarted his attempts to pull the plug on a particularly well-received set in their home state. When the guys do appear together, it’s on a bus, recreating their drives across the state from early in their career. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie, the type that everybody feels when you’re reunited with old friends after an extended period of time; the old problems and feuds are forgotten and things just naturally pick up where they left off before those things intruded. If you want to see a bit more of the guys discussing the old days together, there is a special edition release with an extra DVD of material of just that, available only from the band’s dedicated website if pre-ordered before the release date (March 16, 2015).
Kansas, circa 1973 (Phil Ehart, Kerry Livgren, Steve Walsh, Rich Williams, Robby Steinhardt, Dave Hope) (photo credit: DON HUNSTEIN)
The CD intersperses dialogue from the documentary with the hits and some deeper cuts from the band’s first five records. There are, of course, the group’s two biggest successes, as well as several tracks that have become staples at Classic Rock radio. You’ll recognize the ones I mean as we discuss each track individually. Now, you may be asking yourself, why do we need to discuss individual tracks that are 35 to 40 years old? Well… a couple of reasons: I really didn’t get into Kansas until their sixth release, the live album TWO FOR THE SHOW and, while I was an avid consumer of music back then, I didn’t write reviews like this one. That second reason actually leads to a third reason for an in-depth review: Cuz I wanna and cuz I can (does that make it four reasons? But, then, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!).
Kansas, circa 1974 (Dave Hope, Rich Williams, Robby Steinhardt, Phil Ehart, Steve Walsh, Kerry Livgren) (publicity photo)
The disc is fairly chronological, as it begins with material from KANSAS and ends with songs from POINT OF KNOW RETURN (stopping at each subsequent album in between), although each record’s offerings are re-sequenced from the order in which they originally appeared. That means that this collection starts with the sixth track on 1974’s debut release, “The Pilgrimage,” which is actually pretty standard Midwest rock ‘n’ roll from the period. Except, of course, for Robby Steinhardt’s violin. There is absolutely nothing about this tune that would lead you to believe that these guys would become the standard-bearer for American progressive music by the release of album number two. While “Can I Tell You” was Side one, Track one of the KANSAS record, this version was recorded live for DON KIRSHNER’S ROCK CONCERT. The weird thing about it was that there was no audience; the band was as shocked to discover that when they took the stage as I was when they told the story in the documentary… I mean, who knew? Anyway, “Can I Tell You” is Kansas with their prog roots starting to show and, it’s one of those tracks that you’re likely to hear on the radio when the DJ is sick of playing the hits. “Journey From Mariabronn” is eight minutes of progressive pomp, beautifully constructed and symphonic in its scope. This is the song that really had the other guys in the band standing up and taking notice of Steve Walsh’s vocal abilities.
Kansas, circa 1977 (Kerry Livgren, Phil Ehart, Rich Williams, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, dave Hope) (publicity photo)
“Song For America,” the title track to the second record, sees chief songwriter Kerry Livgren upping his game. The ten minute piece strays a bit into Yes territory with its elegance and power, its intricate time signatures and arrangement. A straight forward rocker, “Down the Road” features a heavy Dave Hope bass line and some wicked duels between Steinhardt and guitarist Rich Williams (or, is it Livgren… or, maybe, both?). There is a section where guitar, bass and violin are playing in harmony that is absolutely magical! The prog-rockery was ratcheted up another notch with MASQUE and its centerpiece, the doublet of “Icarus” and “Borne On Wings of Steel.” The track features a pumping organ from Walsh and some heavy guitar riffs and solos, with the main solo sounding kinda like something that Steve Howe woulda played. With all of that happening, the highlight of the song is found with the amazingly tight harmony vocals. “The Pinnacle” is a majestic, symphonic number, with several musical and emotional levels… and, that’s just in the nearly three minute intro. Phil Ehart’s drums thunder and swell just below the vocals as the song continually threatens to explode in a rock ‘n’ roll fury but, sorta like something by ELP, it’s reined in right before everything blows. The tension, searching desperately for a release, is the driving force until the second, muscular guitar solo (at about the 7:45 mark), but that’s only a tease. The song is a great exercise in dynamics.
LEFTOVERTURE is where record sales finally caught up with the inherent talent of Kansas. This time out, Kerry Livgren’s songs, while not being overtly religious, are much more… spiritual, looking inward and reaching upward. Three of the first four songs on LEFTOVERTURE are presented here, beginning with “The Wall,” another slow, symphonic piece with great harmony guitars and a hymn-like keyboard coda. “Carry On Wayward Son” is THE song that Kansas will forever be remembered for. The release that never came during “The Pinnacle” finally arrives… in spades! With one of the most recognizable choruses and riffs in the history of music, not just rock, “Carry On…” still receives as much airplay as “Stairway To Heaven” or “Free Bird.” That middle section is stunningly powerful, with evocative organ and guitar solos. The song that gave this collection its name, “Miracles Out of Nowhere,” reaches Dennis DeYoung heights of pomposity, with welcome flourishes of late-period King Crimson (before they broke up the first time) mixed in during the instrumental break.
Kansas (Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh) (video still); (Dave Hope) (photo credit: DAVID CARSTENS)
“Point of Know Return,” from the album of the same name, is probably the most well-known number from Kansas’ early oeuvre that isn’t “Carry On…” or “Dust In the Wind.” A nifty bass line from Dave Hope underscores some fairly progressive keyboard, violin and guitar parts on what is pretty much another rather Styxian sounding rocker. “Dust In the Wind” is another brilliant, subliminally spiritual song from Kerry Livgren. The beauty of the piece – aside from the lyrics – lies in its simplicity. Stripped down to the vocals of Steve Walsh and Robby Steinhardt, the guitars of Rich Williams and Livgren and Steinhardt’s violin, it’s a beautiful, sentimental tune that all of the girls wanted to slow dance to at the end of the high school dance for years to come. The final track here is “Nobody’s Home,” another elegant ballad, highlighted by a delicate piano and a rousing finale. It’s an absolutely fitting end to a great look back at a band that, at the time, stood tall among the rock elite. Unfortunately, though the guys remain friends, there are no plans for a reunion album or tour. Too bad. I, for one, would love to see that old fire and passion rekindled… if only for little while.
By 1972, the Stooges were collapsing in upon themselves; the band were two years removed from their second album, FUNHOUSE; they were dropped by their record label, Elektra, and bassist Dave Alexander and guitarist Ron Asheton were gone. James Williamson was the new hot-shot guitar-slinger but, without a record company to back them, Iggy Stooge (now Iggy Pop), drummer Scott Asheton and Williamson were on the verge of packing it in. Then, David Bowie stepped in, convincing his management team, MainMan, to take a flyer on the down-and-nearly-out Detroit bad boys and securing a record deal with Columbia; with Bowie taking a hand in the studio and Ron back in the fold (as a rather disgruntled bass player), the group gave us the seminal 1973 album, RAW POWER. Iggy and Williamson had been writing and demoing material for their next record but, not seeing the kind of return they were expecting, Columbia dropped the band. Williamson and Pop released the KILL CITY album, a live record (METALLIC KO), as well as a couple of EPs of demos before Iggy, with Bowie’s help, went on to a long and erratic solo career. Over the years, other demos have cropped up on various bootlegs. Williamson was said to have been in retirement when the Stooges came calling again, in 2009, after the death of Ron Asheton; in 2014, with the band on hiatus following Scott Asheton’s death, Williamson decided it was time to give those now-ancient songs a proper unveiling. Though Iggy declined to participate on the project, he did give James his approval to re-record the tunes, utilizing a core group of Cat Power’s Gregg Foreman on keyboards, Primal Scream’s Simone Marie Butler on bass and uber-drummer Michael Urbano, as well as the Stooges’ touring band and a string of punk and alt-rock heavy-hitters to bring Iggy’s lyrics to life. Forty years in the making, RE-LICKED is the result.
James Williamson; Alison Mosshart; James Williamson (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)
If I were going to fire an opening salvo across the bow of the enemy, I think that shot would probably be loaded with the demented warble of activist and former Dead Kennedys vocalist, Jello Biafra; apparently Williamson thought the same thing with Biafra’s frantic howl leading the charge on “Head On the Curve.” The tune kinda has a “Stooges meets the MC5 at a mixer hosted by the New York Dolls” vibe, with Foreman’s barely-controlled tack piano coda, massive fuzzed-out bass from Simone (with additional low-end from Mark Culbertson’s contra bass) and – of course – Williamson’s typical slash-and-burn guitar. “Open Up and Bleed” is a sweltering, stormy Blues track. It features an inventive lead from Williamson, alongside another nice solo, as well as some minor key piano from Stooges drummer Toby Dammit; the real highlight comes from the throat of under-rated Blues wailer, Carolyn Wonderland, who also adds a dose of her unique guitar sound. Primal Scream vocalist (and former Jesus and Mary Chain drummer) Bobby Gillespie offers his usual ragged, snotty voice to “Scene of the Crime,” a loud, sloppy piece of raunch with the tack piano (provided by Butler) and lo-fi rhythm section (Butler again, with Urbano banging away on the drums) that was the hallmark of RAW POWER. Steve Mackay offers some sludgy sax work, while James adds a stinging solo. While the majority of the songs here are Pop/Williamson compositions, “She Creatures of the Hollywood Hills” was co-written by Iggy and original Stooges guitarist, Ron Asheton. The tune is a jazzy blast of swampy Doors Style rock and roll, with Manzarek-like keyboards from Foreman and Ariel Pink, ably abetted by Petra Haden, offers up a weird James Brown meets Jim Morrison vocal scat, as Dammit and bassist Mike Watt add a perverse rhythmic swing to the proceedings. There’s also a skronking kind of sax solo from Mackay that is of a variety that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Mothers album. On what is probably the best track on the album, “’Til the End of the Night,” Alison Mosshart’s (of the Kills and the Dead Weather) atmospheric moaning is delivered over Williamson’s sparse acoustic and Urbano’s heavy, orchestral percussion. The tension builds to about the 3:15 mark when everything explodes, collapsing into a jagged electric solo before reverting back to form for the final minute or so.
James Williamson (photo credit: HEATHER HARRIS)
Iggy’s “I Got a Right” crashes Stooges punk into Mother’s Finest rockin’ soul with vocals from the wildly talented Lisa Kekaula (of the Bellrays) wailing away over the Dammit/Watt rhythm section, Petra Haden’s oddly non-verbal backing vocals and a full horn section that includes Allison Gomer, Steffan Kuehn and Aaron Lington. Of course, the master of ceremony holds court with another dose of raunchy rock guitar on a song that woulda made Wendy O and the Plasmatics smile. “Pin Point Eyes” has a dirty, 1920s bawdy house feel, with Foreman’s ragtimey piano and the same horn section as “I Got a Right” dominating the rhythm. The Icarus Line’s Joe Cardamone’s vocals fall somewhere between Berlin-era Iggy and Johnny Thunders’ drugged-addled slurs. All of this, along with a rather restrained solo from James makes the track one of my favorites… this is the type of thing that I think Stiv Bator would be doing if he’d stuck around. The magnificent Alison Mosshart returns for “Wild Love” and she brings Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Queens of the Stone Age… you get the idea… the guy’s got quite a pedigree!) along for the ride. With a butt-load of snarling guitars and the retro sound of Urbano’s drums and Butler’s bass, it’s a love song, Stooges style, and may just be the closest approximation to the band’s first Williamson era. There’s kind of an abstract Bowie-ness to “Rubber Leg.” The stomping rocker features a nifty, gravelly vocal from Little Caesar’s Ron Young amid a miasma of sound with Rolling Stones-like backing vocals and a weird, distorted sax from Steve Mackay that’s buried deep in the mix, coming up for air on an odd Farfisa run from Foreman; the whole thing is very noisy and quite disjointed and… I like it! “I’m Sick of You” is an archaic, American Gothic tune for the first half, with moody guitars and keyboards oozing underneath atmospheric vocals from the Orwells’ Mario Cuomo. It turns into a classic Stooges blast of intensity, with Williamson’s massive power-riffing tolling the death-knell of a broken relationship.
Lisa Kekaula; James Williamson; Mark Lanegan (photo credits: HEATHER HARRIS)
Now… with apologies to the Chairman of the Board (c’mon… you all know who I‘m talking about) and lyricist Paul Anka, there’s this: “And now, the end is near. Bonus tracks? We’ve got a few, but then again too few not to mention.” Carolyn Wonderland returns on vocals and guitar a funky blast of punk (or, is that a punky blast of funk?) called “Gimme Some Skin,” the first of six CD bonus cuts. Buoying Carolyn’s soulful voice are ragged, frenzied guitar blasts from both she and Williamson, as well as a wicked harmonica run from Walter Daniels and some James Chance post-punk sax bleats from Mackay. The first of two takes of “Cock In My Pocket” features typically raunchy Iggy lyrics, delivered with throat-throttling fervor by former Hellacoptors and current Imperial State Electric singer Nicke Andersson. The track also highlights some brilliant baritone sax from Aaron Lington. Another welcome return is featured on “Heavy Liquid.” Lisa Kekaula’s Paul Stanley-like howls carry the wicked Detroit-centric melding of the Stooges with the MC5, Death, Alice Cooper and Mitch Ryder over a muddy RAW POWER sound, with trashy horns from Kuehn, Lington and Gomer. Expanding the rock and roll pool to more of a world stage, the underlying riff is quite reminiscent of Budgie’s “Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman” and about half-a-dozen other hard rock classics, not to mention a bit of Devo and a sniff of Talking Heads. Other than lead singer Shea Roberts and guitarist Jesse Nichols, the Richmond Sluts (Chris B, Justin Lynn, John Tyree) seem to be relegated to the role of vocal support on “Wet My Bed,” with James, Simone, Gregg and Michael doing all of the heavy lifting, instrumentally. The arrangement works really well, with a shambolic free-for-all that sounds like the Dolls channeling Chuck Berry at a ROCKY HORROR SHOW revival; Williamson does his best Johnny Thunders doing his best Chuck and Foreman offers up a great tribute to the late, great Johnnie Johnson (the TRUE King of Rock and Roll)… this one’s a lot of fun. There’s not a lot difference between the first and second versions of “Cock In My Pocket,” other than the punkier voice of Gary Floyd, giving this version a Handsome Dick Manitoba/Dictators vibe. An alternate version of “Rubber Leg” sounds closer to RAW POWER than the regular album version, especially with the Iggy-cum-Joey Ramone yelps of JG Thirlwell, the alter-ego of the extreme artist known as Foetus. RE-LICKED is essential listening for rockers the world over, reminding us all why we started listening to rock and roll in the first place. The album is available in two physical formats: The first is a vinyl version with the first ten cuts… no bonus tracks, but it does come with a CD version that does feature all sixteen tunes; the second version is a standard release of the sixteen track CD. Both versions feature a cool “Making of… ” feature on a bonus DVD, a very nice addition to the entire experience.
Originally produced for the BBC, these programs (or, as they say in Britain, “programmes”) are interesting and accessible to any audience. This set will be well appreciated if you are a documentary fan and want to see how modern medical science has developed in three important areas.
These three major developments led to modern medicine: the development of anesthesia, of antibiotics and of treatments for poisonings and treatments based on toxins. These topics are effectively presented on this two DVD set from Athena. With an interesting narrative, energetic physician Doctor Michael Mosley provides a detailed history featuring dynamic video and effective graphics.
Pain: How were morphine drugs developed from poppy plants? What is anesthesia? The medical community, at first, refused to even admit the possibility that a medicine could render someone unconscious. In a scene reminiscent of an old horror movie, anesthesia was first demonstrated live in front of a group of surgeons in an arena-like surgical theater on a real patient. A surgery was performed with ether administered to the patient, which led to the anesthetics we have today.
Pus: More than just about the “gross” aspects of infection, this video talks about what kinds of microbes can cause infections and how scientists found ways to cure them. From the first sulfa and penicillin drugs, during World War II, to the present, the major successes and, more often, failures in the fight against infectious diseases are described.
Series Host Doctor Michael Mosley (publicity photo)
Poison: Curare, the “poison dart” toxin, was first described by an eccentric Brit named Waterton. It paralyzes breathing. But the body remains conscious. Does that sound creepy? Have you heard of belladonna? The toxin whose name means “beautiful lady.” Its effects include dilation of the pupils, a sign which normally indicates excitement. It was used by women who wanted to appear to be exciting (and excited!). The study of toxins eventually led to the development of chemotherapy for cancer, as well as Botox, usedfor skin wrinkles by women and men today.
This is the tone of the three programs: They show what really happens in the case of wounds, infections and poisonings. It is fascinating! If these three topics weren’t enough, there is also a bonus video: “Seven Wonders of the Microbe World,” running about 27 minutes, features the single cell organisms that make such indispensable items as cheese, wine and beer! Don’t miss the history and description of the microorganism which causes “black death” and the development of the nursery rhyme we still know today, “Ring around the Rosie!”
Over the past 200 years, human life expectancy has been extended from a 30 or 40 year lifespan to an age of 80, 90 and beyond. Does this kind of medical history interest you? Do you want to see the 19th century development of modern medicine? Do you read mysteries involving poisonings or are you fascinated by steam-era technology? To see medicine’s past and glimpse its future, see this 2-DVD set of three videos.