Category Archives: DVD Review

Late Blossom Blues – The Journey of Leo “Bud” Welch

The incredible story of an 81-year-old blues rookie

When Leo “Bud” Welch burst onto the blues scene with his debut album Sabougla Voices, he was both an 81-year-old rookie and an elder statesman. The story of how he flew under the radar for sixty years, was discovered by a fan (who was subsequently thrust into the role of manager), recorded for a label that had all but given up believing there were any more blues unicorns in the wilds of Mississippi, and was feted in the last few years of his life, is as authentic and unexpected as is his music. The film weaves together interviews with Welch, his family and his manager, Vencie Varnado, along with performance and studio footage. The film looks at Welch’s background as a lumberjack, his church life, the separation he kept between the devil’s music and the lord’s, and the incursions of age into Welch’s daily life.

This is less a linear biography than a look at the whirlwind of worldwide activity that followed his discovery. Viktor Schaider’s cinematography is noteworthy as he captures formal and informal interview setups, indoor and outdoor performances, cinema verite action, and establishing shots that capture the feel of Welch’s native Mississippi. This is a fitting accompaniment to Welch’s two albums, helping to dispel the mystery that accompanied his arrival on the scene, and adding dimension to the bluesman heard on record. Make sure to check the extras for bonus interviews, live and archival footage, and watch all the way through the end credits for a riveting 1985 performance of “Praise His Name.” [©2018 Hyperbolium]

Late Blossom Blues Home Page

BANG! The Bert Berns Story

The fascinating story of white soul brother #1

You probably heard a Bert Berns song today. If you heard “Tell Him,” “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me,” “Here Comes the Night,” “Hang on Sloopy” or “Piece of My Heart,” you heard a song he wrote. If you heard “Baby, I’m Yours,” “Under the Boardwalk” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” you heard a record he produced. Berns’ enormous catalog of deeply-felt songs and deftly-produced records puts him in a league with the best of the Brill Building’s songwriters and New York’s golden age pop producers. When Phil Spector lost the Latin soul of Berns’ “Twist and Shout” with a frantic rendition by the Top Notes, Berns picked it back up the next year and minted a classic with the Isley Brothers. And when Berns felt he’d accomplished everything he could as a writer and producer, he founded Bang records, stormed the charts in 1965 with the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” and signed Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.

Born in 1929, Berns was thirty-one when he finally found his way into the music industry as a $50-a-week songwriter for Robert Merlin’s publishing company. His first hit came the following year with the Jarmel’s “A Little Bit of Soap,” and over the next seven years he minted more than fifty pop chart singles. Berns’ early love of Afro-Cuban music permeated his songs, as did the deep, personal feelings he poured into his lyrics. Labeled by his African American artists as “the white soul brother,” he pushed them “to sing it like he meant it.” Session dialog of Berns coaching Betty Harris, as well as Van Morrison during the recording of Blowin’ Your Mind!, give the viewer a feel for his artist rapport. Testimony from family, artists, production and business colleagues testify to the exalted status in which he was held. The interviews are highlighted by his savvy and tough widow, Ilene Berns, and the tough but artistically sensitive Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia.

Berns broke into production with Atlantic, helping the label through the fallow period that followed the departure of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He wrote for and produced Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett and others. By 1964 his songs were doing double-duty as fuel for the British Invasion, with the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Animals all covering Bert Berns tunes, and Berns himself producing Them’s version of his own “Here Comes the Night.” He would eventually sign Van Morrison to Bang, produce a hit and fall out, as he also did with Neil Diamond. His relationships with his publisher and his Atlantic partners also soured as the piles of money became tall enough to fight over, but the interviews conducted for this film demonstrate how deeply respected and loved he remains by his former colleagues. His songs and his records provide the lasting epitaph, but this 90 minute documentary connects the dots and names the legacy. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Bert Berns’ Home Page
BANG! The Bert Berns Story’s Home Page

Roy Orbison: Black & White Night 30

Bonus-laden reissue of stellar 1987 all-star tribute to Roy Orbison

Rarely have stars aligned so figuratively and literally as for this Roy Orbison concert. More than a gathering of famous fans, the performance was a testimonial to the Big O’s lasting impact and enduring artistry. Backing Orbison was Elvis Presley’s TCB Band of Ron Tutt (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and James Burton (electric guitar), augmented by Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Alex Acuna, Tom Waits and T Bone Burnett, a backing chorus of k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Bonnie Raitt, J.D. Souther, Steven Soles and Jackson Browne, and a quartet of violins and violas. Recorded at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood’s Ambassador Hotel, the program was cablecast on Cinemax and released as a live album. It’s subsequently been reissued on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, CD, SACD and was turned into a PBS fundraising perennial.

The song list mixes Orbison’s biggest hits with a few lesser-known selections, including the B-sides “Leah” and “Go! Go! Go! (Move on Down the Line).” The latter finds Burton, Orbison and Springsteen trading guitar solos, and the look on Springsteen’s face as he plays for Orbison is priceless. Throughout the program there’s an overarching sense of admiration as the band and guests are spellbound by Orbison’s operatic flights and emotion-drenched songs. Springsteen is giddy as he sidles up behind Orbison to sing harmony on “Sweet Dream Baby,” and when Orbison nails the climax of “Crying,” the band stops to applaud along with the audience. Although the group rehearsed twice before the show, you get the feeling that these artists had been singing and playing these songs their entire musical lives, and that they weren’t just paying fealty to Orbison, they were paying back a debt.

So why another reissue? Aside from leveraging the thirtieth anniversary to introduce this one-of-kind performance to a new generation, the new DVD and Blu-ray include previously unseen performances, newly integrated camera angles and a mini-documentary, and the running order has also been restored to reflect the set as it was played. The new performances include “Blue Angel” and a shorter alternate take of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” and five songs (“(All I Can Do Is) Dream You,” “The Comedians,” “Candy Man,” “Claudette” and “Uptown”) performed after the audience left for the evening. The 37-minute documentary includes rehearsal footage, along with pre- and post-show interviews with Springsteen, Costello, lang, Raitt and Browne. All together, the new cut of the concert and the generous extras provide a terrific complement to (though not a replacement for) the original release.

At the time of its original release, the special helped launch Orbison’s commercial renewal, which included the Mystery Girl album, and his collaboration with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys. But years of neglecting his health caught up to Orbison fourteenth months after taping the concert, and he died of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 52. His recorded legacy is now being tended to by his sons Alex and Roy Jr., the former of whom co-edited the video, and the latter of whom wrote the liners. Roy’s Boys also supervised the recent restoration of Orbison’s MGM catalog and the release of the missing album One of the Lonely Ones. As with those earlier projects, the restoration and expansion of this performance honors their father’s legacy and shows in stark black and white, the broad, long-lasting impact of his music. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Roy Orbison’s Home Page

50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary

Updated portrait of a pioneering folk trio

Peter, Paul and Mary was born in 1961, amid the artistic ferment of New York City’s Greenwich Village, and it was in that highly-charged atmosphere that their art sharpened into advocacy. Brought together by manager Albert Grossman, the trio’s debut album topped the chart in 1962, and led them to perform songs of social import at protests, strikes and political rallies around the world. They championed the early works of Bob Dylan, sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 March on Washington, endorsed Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign with an original song, protested nuclear power at Diablo Canyon and documented the plight of El Salvador in the 1980s. They lived up to Mary Travers’ edict, “if you’re going it sing the music you have to live the music.”

Though their hits ended with 1969’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and they started a seven-year hiatus in 1970, they regrouped in 1978 and continued to record and perform until Travers’ passing in 2009. Jim Brown’s 78-minute documentary focuses primarily on the salad years of 1961-70, capturing the group’s deep conviction in live performance and interviews. The period footage, often in full-length songs, is incredibly moving as the trio sings with a strength of sentiment rarely seen on today’s national stages. The way in which Mary Travers was physically gripped by the music remains enthralling to this day. Their folk music galvanized a broad international audience in ways nearly impossible with today’s balkanized world of personalized streams. But in 1963, music was a rallying point that had wide societal impact.

Clips with Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger link to the broader folk and political milieus, and scenes from Mary Travers’ memorial service expand the program beyond Brown’s earlier Carry It On – A Musical Legacy. The film sticks mainly to the trio’s public, performing side, leaving out the inner workings of how they wrote, developed their sound, toured or recorded. Also missing is Yarrow’s 1970 arrest and conviction and its impact on the group. Interviews with the trio, along with spouses, children and managers provide period color. Those seeking more music and less story should check out the 25th Anniversary Concert. But those wishing to see PP&M’s intense earnestness in the context of their times will be greatly moved by this film. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

Peter, Paul and Mary’s Home Page

Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy

Color and context from those who were there

Eight years after the 1978 death of Nancy Spungen, director Alex Cox turned Spungen’s dysfunctional, death-courting relationship to then-former Sex Pistol Sid Vicious into the well-regarded film Sid and Nancy. The story of psychological damage, drug use, domestic violence and death made for compelling cinema, but the opacity of its central drama – the death of Nancy Spungen – also proved to be catnip for unsolved murder buffs and conspiracy theorists. Magnifying the unproven allegation against Vicious was his overdose death while awaiting trial, and the subsequent closing of the police investigation. Did Sid kill Nancy? Or might it have been one of the couple’s drug dealers or even a suicide pact?

The film does consider “who did it?,” but the unresolved theorizing isn’t the core value. What sets this documentary apart are the retrospective descriptions of the sordid milieu in which Sid and Nancy lived. The documentary is told in interviews with more than two-dozen people who were on the scene, living in the Chelsea Hotel, touring and playing with Vicious and socializing with the couple, and it’s those recollections that are the draw. The conversations are interwoven with archival film, television and photographs to tell Sid and Nancy’s story as it led to the fateful morning of October 12, 1978, and the subsequent fallout for Vicious.

As in most portraits of the couple, Spungen doesn’t fair well. Although a few interviewees identify themselves as her friend, the adjectives most regularly applied are angry, depressed, controlling, suicidal and unlikeable. Vicious is depicted initially as a puppy-dog man-child image, but separated from drugs by incarceration, a more canny Vicious emerges from the heroin fog. How much of his earlier doe-like innocence was feigned become an interesting question in the shadow of his post-incarceration wrist slashing, re-jailing on a battery charge, and his OD on smack that his mother bought. Just when you think the story couldn’t get more tawdry, it manages to take it down a few more notches.

There is a large body of media covering Sid and Nancy. In addition to Cox’s film (which reportedly drew from Deborah Spungen’s book about her daughter, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life), there are Alan Parker’s book No One is Innocent and documentary Who Killed Nancy? There’s infamous footage of Vicious nodding off in D.O.A. and retrospective articles, punk rock histories, exhibitions and autobiographies. But even with all that, there are no definitive answers. Few who knew Vicious believe he killed Spungen, and her shallow wound suggests negligence over murder. But no one knows. What Danny Garcia’s film offers is first-hand color and context, and a feel for the people and times. But not certainty. [©2017 Hyperbolium]

London Town

dvd_londontownComing of age in the punk rock ‘70s

Forty years after punk rock exploded on the UK scene, many listeners have lost the visceral sources of its creation. It’s surface style rejected the excesses of mainstream rock, but deeper anti-establishment and nihilistic currents were rooted in societal ills that dwarfed the bombast of popular entertainment. The clothing and hairstyles provided tribal badges, but it was the economic brutality of a mid-70s recession, crippling unemployment and the specter of Thatcherism that bound the scene together in hopelessness, anger and idealism. It’s in this milieu that Derrick Borte’s film is set, with music, politics and social upheaval providing the backdrop to a coming-of-age story.

While the Ramones and Sex Pistols lit the fuses of a thousand bands, the wider punk rock scene lit the fuses of a million personal awakenings. One such fuse is attached to the film’s teenage protagonist, Shay, who’s estranged mother, overworked father and young sister require him to quickly outgrow his childhood. A cassette of the Clash and a serendipitous meeting with 15-year-old punk rocker Vivian open Shay’s eyes to a world beyond his working class suburb, a wide open and often contradictory world of skinheads and progressives, police riots and squats, love and preternatural maturity. All of that might be enough to permanently bend a teenager’s trajectory, but a chance encounter with Joe Strummer, and the unlikely friendship they form, proves an even bigger catalyst.

The film’s music scenes – a club date, a rehearsal and a concert – will remind you why the Clash was called “the only band that matters.” More importantly, they’ll will remind you that the right music at the right time can utterly liberate and completely transform a life. The soundtrack features music by the Clash, Stranglers, Buzzcocks, 101ers, Stiff Little Fingers and Toots & The Maytals, and playing the role of Joe Strummer, actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives passionate performances of “Clash City Rockers,” “White Riot” and “Clampdown.” Shay’s coming-of-age story is one we’ve seen before, but set in the transitional late-70s, it will take older viewers back, and give younger viewers a taste of the times. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

London Town Home Page

Louder Than Love – The Grande Ballroom Story

dvd_louderthanloveDetroit rock city’s ground zero

The seeds planted by Bill Graham at the original Fillmore in San Francisco bloomed in many other cities, but few flowered as brightly as Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Inspired by Russ Gibb’s 1967 visit to the Fillmore, the Grande became a melting pot of flower power and urban grit, and a centerpiece of Detroit’s music and cultural scene. When Kiss sang “Detroit Rock City,” they were singing about the Grande. The city’s industrial culture bred tough workers and industrial strength, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll. Gibb’s fortuitous connections to Detroit’s art scene and alternative community led to John Sinclair, and ultimately the MC5 and numerous other local luminaries. The Grande’s imaginative booking policy turned the venue into what Don Was calls “The Mecca of Hip,” hosting local and national bands, and establishing itself as a lynchpin in the U.S. tour circuit of British acts.

The 74-minute documentary includes interviews with Gibb and Sinclair, ballroom manager Tom Wright, alternative publisher Harvey Ovshinsky, poster artist Gary Grimshaw, light show artist Chad Hines, and musicians Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson (MC5), Roger Daltrey (The Who), Scott Morgan (The Rationals), James Williamson (The Stooges), Dick Wagner (The Frost), Ted Nugent and more. A few of the interview clips feel short, but there are many great stories, including that of the Who’s first Grande gig. The Fillmore is rightly lauded for its seminal place in music history, but San Francisco and New York weren’t the only happening spots. The Grande stands alongside Cleveland’s Agora, Chicago’s Kinetic Playground, and San Francisco’s Fillmore, Carousel, Matrix, Avalon and Winterland as one of rock’s great halls, and Tony D’Annunzio and Karl Rausch’s documentary tells its story grandly. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Louder Than Love Home Page

All Things Must Pass – The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

dvd_allthingsmustpassThe high flight and quick descent of Tower Records

A five year fall from billion dollar sales to bankruptcy is a startling denouement, but not the message of Colin Hanks’ documentary on Tower Records. At the heart of the story is founder Russ Solomon, the staff he nurtured with his business, and the customers, artists and customer-artists they served for over fifty years. Solomon and crew tell the story of Tower’s rise from a counter in a Sacramento drug store to an international chain, and the technological advances that at first spurred growth, and later conspired with debt-financed expansion to prompt reorganization, bankruptcy and liquidation.

Tower was both a beneficiary and victim of major technological and social changes. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, baby boomers came of age, music became a cultural rallying point, and record stores turned into social gathering places. Tower’s first standalone store opened on Sacramento’s Watt Avenue in 1961, and their second on Broadway in 1965; but what really signaled the future was the 1968 opening of the San Francisco store at Columbus and Bay and the 1970 opening of the Los Angeles store on Sunset Blvd. Filled with vast inventory, knowledgeable staff and billed as “The Largest Record-Tape Store in the Known World,” Tower Records was unlike any record shop ever seen.

By the end of the 1970s, Tower had more than twenty stores along the West Coast, and expanded successfully to both the East Coast (with a landmark New York City store), and internationally with stores in Japan. With expansion came opportunities for staff growth, and Solomon actively grew his clerks and junior employees into senior staff and executives. Tower’s CFO Bud Martin provided the corporate yin to Solomon’s more freewheeling yang, but it was Solomon’s gregariousness that set the tone for the company’s culture, and made it “the place to work” for many young people. Each Tower store had its own personality, and within each store the major genres (i.e., rock, jazz, classical) often felt like independent shops.

Tower rode a wave of unparalleled musical creativity and concomitant growth in the record industry. They innovated in advertising, store displays (both inside and outside the stores), and developed the in-house music magazine, Pulse! When a recession hit the music industry in the early ‘80s, Tower’s fortunes were not only salvaged but accelerated by the high price point of the newly introduced CD. The late-80s and 1990s saw profits grow, but also planted the seeds of Tower’s eventual downfall: over-expansion and digital music. The former included unsuccessful stores in Asia and Latin America, and bond financing that would turn into crushing debt. The latter provided the technological foundation that would obsolete physical musical retail.

Even before debt and digitalization took their toll, the entry of mass market retailers – Walmart, Target and Best Buy – created pricing pressure that deflated the CD balloon. Napster may be fingered for triggering piracy (the old saw “how do you compete with free?”), but its real impact was in salting the wound of listeners who wanted to buy songs from an industry that wanted to sell albums. To be fair to Tower, few in the industry saw how quickly MP3s would erode CD sales, or that on-demand services would subsequently erode downloads. Terrestrial retailers born to a culture of collecting couldn’t pivot into a world of networked borrowing.

By 2000, CFO Bud Martin had retired and Russ Solomon had been sidelined with heart problems. Martin’s replacement had taken on debt to fuel expansion, and Solomon’s son Mike had taken the helm. The son hadn’t the magnetic, rallying personality of the father, and with sales flattening (for the first time since 1966), the debt holders instigated management changes whose ideas failed to prevent the downward spiral. The money-making Japanese stores were spun off, the American business pruned of its differentiators, and by 2004 the company filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in 2006.

Interviews with celebrity customers Bruce Springsteen and Elton John exemplify how dazzling the Tower shopping experience was, and testimony from employees paints a colorful picture of the backroom. There were tears and anger at the end, but the reader board closed the Watt Avenue store on a fatalistic note: “All Things Must Pass – Thanks Sacramento.” Hanks’ 96-minute documentary is more a love-letter than an analysis, as Tower’s impact on local record stores isn’t discussed, and the fate of its peers (Wherehouse, Peaches, Musicland, Virgin, etc.) is unexplored. But for those who spent countless hours roaming the aisles and perusing the stock of Tower stores, this is a love letter worth viewing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

Tower Records Online
Tower Records Japan

Juke Box Rhythm

DVD_JukeBoxRhythmRemake of Roman Holiday w/Johnny Otis, Earl Grant & The Treniers

This music-rich 1959 film comes from the incredibly prolific producer Sam Katzman, and though billed as a “jukebox musical,” its wide palette of artists and entertainment is more of a variety show. The plot is basically an American rewrite of Roman Holiday, but it’s the music and entertainment sequences that are the film’s draw. Earl Grant plays organ, sings and backs up Jack Jones on a fun throwaway called “The Freeze.” George Jessel, Toastmaster General of the United States, sings and tells jokes, the Treniers perform “Get Out of the Car,” Johnny Otis does “Willie and the Hand Jive,” and Les Nitwits provide comedy relief with vaudeville-styled Dixieland. There’s hot jive dancing, and the film culminates in a Jukebox Jamboree. Worth catching for the music and comedy set pieces. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead

DVD_DontYouWishWeThatWereDeadSeminal punk rock legends who didn’t become icons

The Damned never get their due. Though present at the start of the UK punk movement, they never became icons like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Despite having released what’s considered to be the first UK punk rock single, “New Rose,” and the first full length punk LP, Damned Damned Damned, their legacy remains one known mostly by music aficionados, and their music by fans. But over the course of their forty years, through numerous musical and personnel changes, the band’s output has remained surprisingly transcendent. The fractured relationships, legal rifts and innate tensions of working together for four decades hasn’t dimmed the music’s resonance, nor the band’s live appeal. Even when that live act only includes two original members. This is the story of a marathon, rather than just an initial sprint of brilliance.

Weaving together archival footage with interviews with the band, their contemporaries and those they influenced, the documentary tells several stories at once. At its heart is the story of the Damned as a seminal influence, whose chaotic, satirical style overshadowed their messages, and whose career failed to garner the lasting headlines of bands who wore discontent on their sleeves. That failure haunts the band members to this day, with drummer Rat Scabies sarcastically wondering if the Damned “were just also there” while the Pistols and Clash were changing the world. Interviews with Chrissie Hynde, Steve Diggle, TV Smith, Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Glen Matlock, JJ Burnel, Billy Idol, Dave Robinson and others testify to the Damned’s place in punk rock history, while Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra and Buzz Osborne testify to their influence.

Unsurprisingly, the intra-band arguments often centered on money (particularly Scabies’ purchase of the band’s early albums out of a bankruptcy sale) and bad behavior. Forty years of on-again, off-again groupings seems to exposed all possible conflicts. What’s amazing is that through all the turmoil, the band outlasted their peers and successfully navigated transitions from punk rock to goth to prog-rock to new romanticism. They may not get the commercial placements of the Clash, Buzzcocks or Ramones, but the live clips show them still to be a potent stage act that’s beloved by their fans. This three-years-in-the making documentary played the festival circuit and select theater engagements before debuting on DVD in May, 2016. It’s a great watch for both die-hard fans and anyone interested in punk rock history. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

The Damned’s Home Page