Writer and music critic Nick Tosches published a book in 2002 about a 1920’s minstrel singer named Emmett Miller. Prejudice and cultural identity were brought up of course but ultimately the book is about the pull of music. How a haunted, yodeling voice scratching out from the grooves of a 78rpm record can set a writer in motion.
The title is Where Dead Voices Gather. It just seems like an apt phrase when considering three films about phantom music makers.
Finding Fela is a straight up documentary of bandleader and musical innovator Fela Kuti. Born into an educated family in Nigeria and trained in music at Trinity College in London, over the course of his career he essentially created “afrobeat”, a driving musical form that allowed complex dance rhythms to serve lyrics of political dissent. His bands Africa 70 and Egypt 80 were precision booty shaking juggernauts. A conflicted, driven individual and an advocate for African identity and human rights across all cultures, he was a polygamist and inadequate father who remained in his homeland, standing up to the military dictatorship that was in place for decades after Nigeria became independent in 1960.
It’s an interesting story and director Alex Gibney‘s forte is this kind of documentary, but shoehorning in segments about the production of the musical Fela! shifts the film’s focus at odd moments. It could be argued that the play which was first produced in 2008 off Broadway created a wider awareness of Kuti and made a call for this kind of film necessary to assure a place for him in music history. Playwright Bill T. Jones offers insight and opinion but in the end it serves more as production notes towards choreography and actor motivation on stage.
While not as accessible as Bob Marley, Kuti was as ground-breaking as John Coltrane and James Brown. His albums have always been in print and he isn’t known only to cloistered music aficionados. The preachy on stage moments from the show are out of context, a touch jarring and seem to flatten out the perception of the man. His music was fueled by the bloody specters of colonialism and civil war and his own imprisonment. Coupled with his close-minded (for such a forward thinking artist) denial of contracting HIV, which ultimately killed him, and you have story enough without Broadway pizzazz however heartfelt.
In the movie Memphis a young man is either at the beginning or end of his career. He’s either great or he’s kidding himself. The people around him are either lost or joyful. He’s alienated them or they love him and at the end of this enthralling film none of your questions are answered.
It’s a movie about music with only a scattering of sweet notes and honeyed vocal tones. The name itself is evocative. Music has howled out of this city and music has floated away from this city and been lost. Dead voices are home.
Real life soul singer Willis Earl Beal wanders the neighborhoods and woods around this storied river city. One of the most gorgeous films this year but feel free to pick a larger swath of time if you’d like. Under a viaduct a boy peddling his bike like crazy splashes through a puddle. The smile flashed by a young woman walking past overgrown front yards is like something from the dawn of the world. Ductwork in an attic, lit like giant, silver fingers, hovers over a discordant keyboard with the majesty of a Gaudi archway. It’s messy and abstract and at times too arty in its character’s idiosyncratic solitude, but director Tim Sutton and cinematographer Chris Dapkins have composed an elegant paean to a Memphis more solid than any MOR lyric swill referencing Beale street for lazy validity, and as lost and ghostly as cottonwood fluff drifting downriver.
The roadblock that actually drove the ambition to make Jimi: All Is By My Side is that no voice was allowed. The Hendrix estate wouldn’t clear the rights to songs for the film so a by-the-numbers bio-pic such as Ray or even Walk the Line wasn’t possible. Filmmaker John Ridley sets his story of the guitar legend in the year before Hendrix broke at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. Hendrix, as portrayed by André Benjamin of Outkast, comes under the wing of Linda Keith, 60’s “it” girl/model and music fan and Keith Richard‘s then girlfriend. She believes in Hendrix’s talent and convinces ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler to become his manager. Drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding are pulled in to complete his band The Experience. Sluggish public response is turned around by their Saville Theatre gig and Hendrix’s playful choice to open with a cover of the Beatles‘ Sergeant Pepper.
Benjamin is a convincing Hendrix and the guitar is strung incorrectly, but he captures the man’s wistful demeanor. The film itself is labored and at times wheezes in its efforts. With no help from the Hendrix estate, filmmaker John Ridley can only be faulted so much. He does skip the paisley nostalgia and portrays a London that wasn’t swinging yet along with the careerist back biting that was probably the norm for British pop. Dishwater skies, gray food and grayer attitudes. Hendrix’s prowess may have been forged in more of a vacuum than we’ll ever know.
Telling a sonic story visually is tough. We’re “watching” music. What does a squall of sound look like? If we see it, will dead voices stick around?
FINDING FELA – Documentary, Not Rated, DVD
MEMPHIS – Drama, Not Rated, DVD
JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE – Biography/Drama/Music, Rated R, DVD/Blu-Ray
DVD Release Date: 1/13/15